Allie Gribben, age 6, doesn’t think twice about what toys she takes home or what she puts in her mouth.
“For me, I always want to try new things and have fun,” she told the Today show on Sunday.
But the Texas girl couldn’t always help herself when she’d visit her grandparents in Garland, Texas, around Dec. 26.
The Leviston Valley Elementary student tried to bite her tongue, but started to have trouble breathing. When paramedics arrived, they found that the youngest Gribben had swallowed more than 23 magnets, which the girl thought were cereal flakes but which instead contained tiny parts of a fifth-generation magnet. One of those magnets was at least 3 millimeters long.
“It was really scary because I thought I was going to die,” Gribben told the Today show.
The exact reason why she had swallowed so many tiny magnets remains unclear. But children who have ingested magnets may find it hard to breathe and swallow, and can swallow magnetic structures such as car or coin magnets as well, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Surgery or radiation can be needed to remove the objects.
Those who swallow magnets need to find support to help remove them.
Fifteen percent of children younger than 5 have a history of swallowing magnets, according to the Academy of Pediatrics. Children younger than 3 are most likely to accidentally swallow magnets.
In 2013, a 7-year-old boy had 18 magnets removed from his intestine when he ate a box of Hot Wheels car magnets.
In 2016, a 9-year-old boy and his 3-year-old sister had to have surgery after they swallowed the magnets, which they had not noticed as candy.
It’s unclear whether Gribben’s magnets were from an exchange or the on-line toy trend known as the “TikTok.” Some adults have also swallowed the small magnetic objects thinking they were toys, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“We want parents to be cautious about what their children play with,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Mold, coffee grounds and hair pins can make children sick if swallowed, and NASA warned in 2015 that small magnets could also be dangerous to humans. The space agency urged parents to keep the objects out of a child’s reach.
“When parents realize that magnets, which some consider a fun toy, can do substantial damage to children, the harmful effects increase exponentially,” NASA noted.
Although Gribben has made progress in her recovery, she still has a long road ahead of her, according to her mother, Karen, who is a pediatrician. An MRI earlier this year revealed that Gribben’s right ear is still infected, and she has two more surgeries to come.
“It’s important to note that she’s far from recovered and that her vision and hearing will likely never return,” Schuchat said.
Schuchat encouraged parents to prevent their children from ingesting magnets by using “buckets to store toys.” Most young children won’t hold on to their toys.
She also recommended that young children be taught to clean toys by placing their mouth on the item. If they need to, parents can hold the magnet with their thumb.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has published guidance for parents and caregivers on how to keep toys and other large magnets out of the reach of children. Children under age 5 should not be allowed to play with toys containing those items.
“We think this is a timely story to put out as spring break comes and kids will be returning to school,” Schuchat said.