This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 6, 2014.
In a toy store, it’s easy to find labels warning that small parts could be a choking hazard for children. But similar warnings don’t typically come with the most common cause of choking: food.
About 60 percent of childhood choking incidents are caused by food in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The food most likely to land a choking kid in the emergency room is hard candy, according to a 2013 study in the journal Pediatrics. It was the culprit in 15 percent of kids’ nonfatal, food-related choking cases identified in the study.
Gum and other candies were next on the list, followed by meat, not including hot dogs; bones; and fruits or vegetables.
The researchers, who were from the CDC and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, looked at national hospital data from 2001 through 2009. They found that more than 12,000 kids age 14 or younger had come to the ER each year because they choked on food. That’s an average of 34 kids a day.
Nuts, seeds and shells collectively ranked seventh on the hazard list, and hot dogs were 12th. But the study only looked at nonfatal choking incidents. Research on fatal choking ranks hot dogs and nuts, seeds and shells much higher.
On average, 57 children die each year after choking on food, according to the CDC.
A child’s airway is as wide as the tip of an adult’s pinky, and the esophagus is only a bit bigger, said Dr. Peter Koltai, chief of pediatric head and neck surgery at Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. In addition to food, he warned parents about two other common causes of choking: pennies and lithium button batteries. The batteries pose an extra threat, he said, because they can release dangerous chemicals that burn holes through bodily tissue.