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Mom warns about dangers of popcorn after toddler accidentally inhales kernels

After a brief choking incident a small boy seemed to recover.
/ Source: TODAY

After a brief choking incident with popcorn, a 2-year-old boy seemed to recover. But a few days later, his fever spiked and he struggled to breathe. His mother's Facebook warning about the scary incident has been shared over 100,000 times.

It started in mid- February, when the Goddard family snuggled together in their Denver home with a few bags of microwave popcorn to watch “Mrs. Doubtfire.” As 2-year-old Nash ate some of the popcorn, he started choking. Mom, Nicole Goddard, shouted to her husband, Jake, to grab Nash to help him.

“He started coughing then. So we knew he swallowed it and we continued to watch the movie,” Goddard, of Denver, told TODAY. “We took the popcorn away from him.”

The Goddards are flight attendants and have experience with the Heimlich maneuver. But Nash didn’t require it. They thought he was OK because he was breathing normally.

A little later he started coughing, but Goddard wasn’t worried: Her two daughters, Ashlee, 9, and Reagan, 7, both had the flu and mom believed Nash caught it.

“It was just a weird cough,” she said. “I just assumed he was getting whatever crud they had.”

On Sunday, Nash seemed like his normal energetic self, except for the hoarse cough. On Monday evening, he was acting fussy and his mother checked his temperature, which was 103 Fahrenheit. It seemed like flu, so Goddard gave him ibuprofen and put him to bed.

When Nash woke, he struggled to breathe. His mother took him to the pediatrician immediately.

“The doctor said his lungs didn’t sound right,” Goddard explained.

As the doctor considered an X-ray to check Nash’s lungs, he asked if anything else unusual had happened.

“I said, ‘This is probably completely irrelevant,’ and I mentioned the popcorn incident,” she said.

toddler chokes on popcorn
During a family movie night, Nash, 2, started coughing after eating some popcorn. When he was still coughing and feverish, his mom took him to the doctor. They found six pieces of popcorn in his lungs.Courtesy Goddard family

The doctor said it was “very relevant” and sent him to Children’s Hospital Colorado, where an X-ray revealed several pus pockets in Nash’s lungs.

Doctors performed a bronchoscopy — a scope that goes through the nose or mouth down the throat and to the lungs — to see what caused the pus. They discovered six pieces of popcorn and removed it. Nash had pneumonia and his lungs were so inflamed doctors wanted to do another scope in a few days. They found and removed one more piece of popcorn.

“I had Googled it several times: Symptoms of aspirating popcorn. He hadn’t had any symptoms from it yet,” she said.

Goddard shared her experience in a now-viral Facebook post.

"Now that I’ve had a chance to sit and reflect on a very unfortunate but eye opening event that our family encountered," she wrote. "I wanted to share our experience because as I’ve shared the story so many people were shocked and unaware of the bad effect popcorn can have on a toddler."

Experts say it is easier for young children to inhale food into their lungs because they are learning to eat solid food.

“It is a new skill for them and don’t have multiple sets of molars to grind down the food like an adult,” Dr. Erica Michiels, associate medical director of the pediatric emergency department at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who did not treat Nash, told TODAY.

These are common foods that doctors advise parents not to give children under 4:

  • Peanuts
  • Edamame
  • Grapes
  • Hot dogs cut cross sectional

"Those foods that are kind of the right shape or size to really lodge in the airway,” said Michiels.

When a child is actively choking and struggling to breathe, calling 911 and performing the Heimlich maneuver is appropriate, she said. But it can be harder to tell what to do when they aspirate food into their lungs, because the child’s airway often isn’t completely blocked.

“Sometimes the only way if we figure out if pneumonia is from a food particle is when the child continues to get pneumonia in the same spot and same lung,” Michiels said.

Michiels also has personal experience with a child aspirating food. When her son was 2, he inhaled carrots into his lungs. While he could still breathe, she sensed something was wrong.

“I could tell he was wheezing. That was my tip off," she said.

Parent worried about aspirated food should observe children for:

  • Coughing fits
  • Wheezing
  • Drooling
  • Discomfort
  • Whining
  • Refusing to eat or drink anything
toddler chokes on popcorn
Weeks after aspirating popcorn into his lungs, Nash Goddard is on the mend.Courtesy Goddard family

Goddard is glad that Nash’s experience can teach about the dangers of popcorn and young children. She hopes parents also take away another important message: trust your instincts.

“Honestly, I questioned whether I was even going to take him in,” she said. “There was something that kept telling me he he needs to be seen. Trust ... the mom or dad instinct.”