So You Swallowed A Toothpick

So You Swallowed A Toothpick

Jason’s favorite lunch was a club sandwich at his local deli. On Fridays, he liked to go over with his coworkers and order a few beers with their meals. Daniel, one of Jason’s coworkers, came over for food and was in a great mood. As they continued to suffer the interminable wait for the thick maple flavored bacon club sandwich they watched the ballgame and 6 beers each seemed to disappear down Jason’s throat. Daniel’s jokes seemed all the more funny and then the sandwich arrived. Jason bit into the sandwich like a starved wolf and before he knew it, he felt the sudden onset of chest pain. Jason looked at the plate and noted that part of a toothpick was missing. He did not know what to do! He had no insurance so he was afraid to go to the hospital. Daniel took him to the emergency room and said that the restaurant should pay for his care.

Toothpicks have been used for thousands of years. In Roman times there are descriptions of Caesar using “picks” to clean the meat from his teeth. Men’s teeth have not changed much and neither has their taste for cooked meat that gets stuck easily between their choppers! Using toothpicks to hold food together may not date back as many years. Deli shops often use toothpicks to hold multilayer sandwiches together on the plate. The dinners are not accompanied by any warning and the food can be hazardous to your health. Anywhere from 1-7% of swallowed toothpickstoothpick-holder can cause serious injury. One novelist (Sherwood Anderson) died of toothpick ingestion. (His first four wives were unsuccessful). Autopsies generally are not performed except in universities and many times the cause of death can be missed. Often the toothpick is swallowed when one’s judgment is clouded by alcohol, excessive laughter, or a sudden fright (like being almost hit by a car).

Should restaurants be responsible for toothpick injuries? The bars are being held liable for serving too much alcohol. Presently, the U.S. courts rule that bars legally are responsible for automobile accidents caused by their alcohol. Maybe some shops are serving dangerous food. It is not so much to ask that our food not cause a life threatening injury within minutes of consuming it. Perhaps a better idea would be using a consumable no injuries device such as a “sugar spike” that holds the sandwich together but dissolves quickly. A “sharp” piece of celery that can be used? I am sure that many of us and the food industry could come up with a much more novel idea that would not perforate our sensitive intestinal tract.

Jason went to the ER and a gastroenterologist was called in who performed an endoscopy – a little tube with a light was passed into the esophagus (feeding tube) where the toothpick was found. It was grabbed with a tiny snare lasso and gently pulled out. Jason woke up but didn’t care about the bill. He felt better. Daniel may have saved his life!


  1. If you swallow a sharp object seek qualified medical attention immediately
  2. Toothpicks should not be in your food when you eat it.
  3. Newer methods of holding food together should be thought of
  4. If you wait too long the toothpick will pass where an endoscope cannot reach it.

Best reference “The Toothpick: Technology an Culture “by Henry Petroski (Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University.

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