Let this be a lesson to kids not to put small objects in their mouths. A 47-year-old man in Preston, U.K., recently underwent surgery to have a small Playmobil traffic cone removed from his lung 40 years after he accidentally inhaled it.
The doctors initially thought the mass that was visible in X-rays, and which was the cause of the man’s chronic cough, was a tumour.
“He was initially treated for a pneumonia, and as he was a smoker, he was followed up more closely following antibiotics since his symptoms and the changes on his X-ray persisted,” Dr. Nicholas Denny, clinical fellow at Central Manchester Foundation Trust and author of the BMJ Case Report, tells Global News. “He had further tests to investigate for possible lung cancer.”
But when doctors went in to remove the mass, instead of a tumour they pulled out a small plastic traffic cone that the man had received as part of a birthday gift when he was seven. The report states that the man told doctors he “regularly played with and even swallowed” the toy pieces as a kid.
The question remains: how is it possible that a foreign object could stay lodged in a person’s lung for 40 years with no repercussions?
“He may have had symptoms as a child at the time it was aspirated — cough, chest pain, etc. — but these were put down to a transient illness. The cone is hollow and so may have allowed airflow,” Denny says. “Over development, the airway may have adapted to incorporate the cone such that although it caused some obstruction, it did not cause any symptoms. Smoking may also have contributed by suppressing airway immunity.”
While there is a medical explanation for how the man’s lung was able to accommodate a plastic toy for four decades, Denny does concede in the report that “a case in which the onset of symptoms occurs so long after initial aspiration is unheard of.”
Undoubtedly, safety standards and parenting approaches were considerably laxer 40 years ago, but Denny says there really isn’t anything new to be learned from this case.
“I guess it’s helpful for parents to be aware of the risk of foreign body aspiration or choking, their symptoms and what to do in the event this occurs.” He points to St. John Ambulance as a valuable resource.
As for the man, his breathing and lung capacity have markedly improved since the removal of the Playmobil toy.