The UK’s top paediatric surgeons have urged parents not to buy toys containing magnets this Christmas following a dramatic rise in children needing operations after swallowing them.

The Children’s Surgery Foundation issued the warning after a five-fold increase in children swallowing the small, often brightly-coloured and increasingly powerful magnets in the last five years.

Surgeons also urged schools to ban the magnets, regardless of the age of pupils, and warned that some children had accidentally swallowed them after copying influencers on TikTok.

Figures from four major hospitals in south-east England found that 251 children were admitted after swallowing foreign objects between 2016 and 2020. Of these, 37% were coins (93 cases), 21% were magnets (52 cases) and 17% were button batteries (42 cases).

Hemanshoo Thakkar, consultant paediatric surgeon at Evelina London Children’s Hospital said: “During this period, there was a five-fold increase in the number of children who swallowed magnets, most of which were brightly-coloured matchstick-shaped pieces found in children’s building sets.

“More than 40% of the children needed surgery and in half of the cases the children experienced complications as their intestines had holes in them, which led to infections.

“This year alone Evelina London has seen 15 new cases of children swallowing magnets and have operated on seven of them, a couple of whom were very unwell.”

Just 2% of children swallowing button batteries required surgery, but 42% of those who swallowed magnets required either keyhole surgery (laparoscopy) or more invasive laparotomy, which involves incisions in the abdominal wall to gain access to the gut.

Mr Thakkar said surgeons had also seen children who had accidentally swallowed the magnets after copying influencers on TikTok, who used them to create false piercings on their tongues and cheeks.

Mr Thakkar said: “If children swallow one magnet it will probably pass through their body harmlessly but if they swallow two or more magnets, especially at different times, the magnets, which are increasingly very powerful, are forced together in the intestines, squeezing the tissue so that the blood supply is cut off.

“Significant damage can be caused within hours with holes being made in the children’s intestines which cause the children to be unwell, and sometimes seriously ill, with many requiring complex operations to remove the magnets and requiring long periods of recovery time in hospital.”

Caroline Pardy, trustee of The Children’s Surgery Foundation and a paediatric surgeon at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, urged schools to ban the magnets.

She said: “I have also spoken to many parents who are very angry that their child has swallowed the magnets whilst at school. Such magnets are sometimes used as ‘sensory’ toys for children with additional needs. In other circumstances the magnets have been brought into school by other children.

“I would urge all schools to ban such magnets, regardless of the age of the children.”

The surgeons said they were seeing children as young as two years old who had swallowed magnets, but also teenagers. The average age of children being admitted to hospital after swallowing magnets is seven years.

Jimmy Bui, aged two, from Ramsgate in Kent, required open surgery in June after swallowing three magnets.

His father, Hung Bui, said: “Jimmy swallowed tiny magnets used to stick a note onto the fridge. He started to get tired and then stopped eating and going to the toilet, so we took him to our local A&E.

Jimmy, aged two, recovers in hospital after his operation to remove magnets from his bowel (Hung Bui/PA)

“We had no idea that he had swallowed three of the magnets until we saw it on the X-ray.

The 33-year-old added: “The magnets had stuck together causing a hole in Jimmy’s bowel. He was transferred to Evelina London Children’s Hospital for open surgery and spent three weeks recovering there.

“We are always very careful, but this still happened, so I want to warn other parents out there to be very vigilant. I would urge them not to buy toys containing these magnets. We don’t have any of these magnets in our household any more.”

NHS England has called for a ban on these types of magnets in toys because of the dangers they pose.

Munther Haddad, chairman of The Children’s Surgery Foundation, President of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons (BAPS) and a consultant paediatric and neonatal surgeon at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, said: “Our main message, especially in the build-up to Christmas, is not to buy your children toys with magnets in them.

“If families already have toy magnets at home it is essential children are supervised carefully when they are playing with them and if the children are old enough, please warn them of the dangers of swallowing magnets.”