Medical Error: This Lung Cancer Tumor Was Actually a Tiny Toy Cone Inhaled 40 Years Ago

In what may be among the strangest medical diagnoses of the year, a British man was told that he did not have lung cancer tumor, but instead had swallowed a plastic toy cone 40 years earlier. Experts say this case isn’t as isolated as we may think; inhaling toys is actually a pretty big problem for small children.

In a case published in BMJ Case Reports, a 47-year-old male was being treated for respiratory problems at a clinic in the UK  for about a year after suffering from a number of problems ranging from uncontrollable coughing to excess mucous production. Eventually the man underwent an x-ray, which revealed a black mass in his lungs. Fearing the worst, the patients was told that the mass was likely a cancerous tumor.

cone The tine cone was accidentally inhaled during childhood. Photo Courtesy British Medical Journal

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To confirm the suspicion, doctors performed a bronchoscopy test, using an instrument called a bronchoscope to examine the airways. The tube is flexible, placed through the nose or mouth into the airways, and has a light and a camera at the end.

The examination revealed that the source of the patient’s discomfort was not a tumor but a plastic toy cone, likely from a childhood Playmobil set. The team removed the cone, and within months his symptoms subsided.

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In a last twist to the story, the patient was not all that surprised to find the tiny object in his lungs. He recalled regularly swallowing toy Playmobil objects during his childhood and even “recalled being given his Playmobil set for this seventh birthday and believes he aspirated the toy traffic cone soon after.”

2017 cxr These images show the lungs 2 weeks before the cone's removal and 4 months after. Photo Courtesy of the British Medical Journal

From then onward the toy went undetected in the lungs. The report suggests this is likely because the young lungs were able to adapt to the foreign object and absorbed it into the lungs mucous lining.

Kids inhaling and swallowing foreign objects is a serious problem. According to Medline Plus, children aged one to three are at greatest risk for this. An object can become trapped in the throat and cause choking, and once inhaled, it can lead to infection or inflammation. The objects most commonly swallowed or inhaled are coins, buttons and beads, but as shown in this case study really anything is fair game. 

The patient did not report whether the absence of the traffic cone led to a rise in accidents among his toy cars.  

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