What happens if I ate Styrofoam?

Styrofoam, also known as expanded polystyrene foam, is a common material used for take-out food containers, packaging, and craft projects. It’s light, durable, and an excellent insulator. However, Styrofoam is not meant to be eaten. So what happens if you accidentally ingest some Styrofoam?

Can you eat Styrofoam?

No, Styrofoam is not meant to be eaten. It is an expanded plastic made from polystyrene and is not digestible. Eating Styrofoam could cause:

  • Stomach pain or discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Blockages in the digestive tract

While small amounts of Styrofoam are likely to pass through your system without issue, larger pieces or substantial quantities could cause blockages.

Is Styrofoam toxic?

The polystyrene itself is generally considered non-toxic. However, there are a few concerns with ingesting Styrofoam:

  • It can mechanically obstruct the digestive tract.
  • Trace amounts of styrene monomer may leach out, which is considered a possible human carcinogen.
  • It may absorb toxic substances if used with food.

So while Styrofoam itself is relatively inert, there are risks associated with swallowing large amounts of it. It’s best to avoid ingesting it.

What Happens When You Eat Styrofoam?

Now let’s look at the step-by-step process of what happens when you eat Styrofoam:

1. Chewing

If you bite into a Styrofoam cup or plate, you’ll find it’s quite difficult, if not impossible, to chew. Styrofoam is designed to be rigid and durable, so it doesn’t break down easily. The tiny foam beads that make up Styrofoam are bonded together, giving it a stiff, plastic-like texture.

You may manage to break off small chunks of Styrofoam while chewing, but these brittle pieces are unlikely to break down further. Swallowing them whole is a choking hazard.

2. Swallowing

Any pieces of Styrofoam that you swallow will travel down your esophagus and enter your stomach. Here, they will begin mixing with your stomach acids and food contents.

Your digestive juices won’t be able to break down the polystyrene molecules. While this indigestible material sits in your gut, it can cause intestinal irritation and inflammation.

3. Stomach Distention

Because Styrofoam takes up space but can’t be digested, it will cause your stomach to distend or expand. This can lead to feelings of fullness, abdominal pain, and nausea.

Large amounts of Styrofoam may obstruct your pyloric valve – the opening between your stomach and small intestine. This can trigger violent vomiting as your body tries to rid itself of the foreign material.

4. Intestinal Obstruction

The longer Styrofoam remains in your digestive tract, the further it moves down towards your intestines. Pieces of Styrofoam can clump together to form larger masses that may obstruct your small or large intestine.

Signs of intestinal blockage include:

  • Cramping
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Inability to pass gas
  • Vomiting

A complete blockage is considered a medical emergency. Without treatment, it can lead to a hole in the intestinal wall, infection, and death.

5. Bowel Perforation

In rare cases, sharp Styrofoam fragments can perforate or poke a hole in the wall of your stomach or intestines. This is extremely dangerous, as it allows digestive juices and bacteria to leak into your abdominal cavity.

Symptoms of a gastrointestinal perforation include:

  • Sudden, severe pain in the abdomen
  • Rigid, distended abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Low blood pressure

This requires emergency surgery to repair the hole and clean out any leaked contaminants.

6. Possible Passage in Stool

In some cases, small pieces of Styrofoam may eventually pass through your entire GI tract and exit in the stool. Passing the Styrofoam can provide symptom relief.

However, the jagged edges may scrape and damage the intestinal or rectal lining on the way out. Pieces retained in the intestines can still cause future obstruction or perforation.

Dangers and Side Effects

Consuming Styrofoam carries short-term risks as well as the possibility of longer-lasting complications:

Short Term

  • Choking hazard – Large pieces may become lodged in the throat and block the airway.
  • Stomach pain – Indigestible Styrofoam takes up space and stretches the stomach lining, causing cramps and discomfort.
  • Nausea and vomiting – An irritated stomach or blocked intestine trigger the vomiting reflex.
  • Bowel obstruction – Styrofoam chunks can get stuck along any point in the intestines.
  • Internal damage – Sharp edges may scrape and puncture the GI tract lining.

Long Term

  • Malnutrition – Obstructions can prevent proper absorption of nutrients from food.
  • Dehydration – Fluid imbalances due to recurrent vomiting and diarrhea.
  • GI perforation – Weakened intestinal walls may rupture and leak dangerous bacteria.
  • Sepsis – An untreated perforation can cause a fatal systemic infection.
  • Adhesions – Scar tissue may form in the intestines and cause recurring obstructions.

Any symptoms of vomiting, severe abdominal pain, or bowel obstruction following Styrofoam ingestion require prompt medical care. Call 911 or poison control if you experience signs of a blockage.

Who is Most at Risk?

While ingesting Styrofoam is never advisable, some groups have a higher risk of complications:


Children are more apt to put Styrofoam in their mouths out of curiosity. Their smaller bodies make it easier for even small pieces to cause obstructions.

Those with GI disorders

People with chronic gastrointestinal problems like ulcers or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) already have irritated intestinal linings. Styrofoam could exacerbate inflammation and trigger a flare.

Patients post-abdominal surgery

Those who’ve recently undergone stomach or intestinal surgery have fragile healing tissue. Styrofoam could widen incisions or cause new tears.

Elderly individuals

Many older adults take medications that inadvertently slow GI motility. Their weaker intestinal muscles may not be able to push Styrofoam through effectively.

Amounts that are Safe to Ingest

No amount of Styrofoam is actually considered safe to eat. Even tiny traces pose some risk of gastrointestinal irritation or obstruction. However, ingesting very small flecks is unlikely to cause major issues in generally healthy people.

As a general guideline:

  • Pieces less than 5mm (about the size of a grain of rice) may pass uneventfully.
  • Pieces 5-10mm may cause temporary discomfort before passing.
  • Pieces larger than 10mm can likely obstruct the intestines.

It’s impossible to predict with certainty what may happen if Styrofoam is swallowed. Seek medical help if symptoms don’t quickly resolve on their own. Don’t induce vomiting unless instructed by poison control.

How Long Does It Take Styrofoam to Pass Through Your System?

How long Styrofoam remains in your digestive tract can vary dramatically based on the size and quantity ingested, as well as your own gastrointestinal health. Some possibilities include:

  • Small flecks may exit in the stool within 1-2 days.
  • Larger pieces may take 2-7 days to fully pass.
  • Complete obstruction can occur, blocking all passage.
  • Surgical removal may be required for obstruction or perforation.

On average, indigestible objects take 4-5 days to complete the journey through the intestines. This is highly variable though depending on the above factors.

Keep an eye out for any Styrofoam passed in the stool. Saving a sample can help your doctor assess risks and determine if a blockage remains. Call your physician if symptoms like pain or vomiting last more than 48 hours.

Can an X-Ray Detect Styrofoam in Your System?

Yes, Styrofoam will show up on an abdominal x-ray. Its radio-opaque properties clearly differentiate it from soft tissues and air in the intestines.

Here’s what shows up on imaging with Styrofoam ingestion:

  • Plain film x-rays – Bright white jagged shapes representing Styrofoam fragments. Can detect obstruction.
  • CT scan – More detailed 3D views to pinpoint Styrofoam location. Assesses complications.
  • Barium swallow/GI series – Coats the esophagus and stomach with contrast. Tracks Styrofoam passage through the upper GI tract.

These imaging tests can help diagnose an obstruction or perforation. They may be recommended if you have prolonged vomiting, severe pain, or other red flag symptoms.

An x-ray can also confirm after the fact that Styrofoam has passed through your system. It cannot however assess any internal damage that may have occurred along the way.

How to Treat Styrofoam Ingestion

Treatment depends on the amount of Styrofoam swallowed and resulting symptoms:

No or mild symptoms

For incidental ingestion of small Styrofoam pieces:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to keep the GI tract lubricated
  • Eat high fiber foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains to keep stool soft
  • Avoid foods that constipate, like dairy, meat and refined grains
  • Take over-the-counter stool softeners if needed for constipation
  • Call your doctor if symptoms last more than 2 days

Significant symptoms

With larger masses or quantities causing obstruction:

  • Call 911 or emergency services for severe vomiting, pain, fever
  • Hospital admission for IV fluids, decompression tube, pain medication
  • Endoscopy to visualize blockage and potentially remove pieces
  • Surgery to clear obstruction or repair perforations

Whole recovery

After Styrofoam has passed through the system:

  • Follow up with your physician for any lingering symptoms
  • Re-evaluate medications that may be constipating
  • Consider probiotics and fiber supplements to restore gut health
  • Drink electrolyte solutions if dehydrated
  • Seek therapy for pica or other psychological causes if intentional ingestion

Contact poison control (1-800-222-1222) or your doctor if you experience any symptoms after consuming Styrofoam. Early treatment is key to preventing complications.

How to Prevent Accidental Styrofoam Ingestion

While outright avoiding Styrofoam isn’t always possible, you can take some key steps to prevent accidental consumption:

  • Carefully remove all Styrofoam packing from food before cooking or eating.
  • Don’t let children chew on Styrofoam cups, plates, or packaging materials.
  • Properly dispose of foam take-out containers after finishing food.
  • Avoid using foam cups for hot drinks which can degrade the material.
  • Never intentionally misuse Styrofoam containers to microwave food.
  • Wash hands after handling Styrofoam to remove residue before meals.
  • Watch for small beads around arts, crafts, and packing materials.

Being cautious when handling and disposing of Styrofoam products can help reduce the risks of accidental consumption. Supervise use around small children.

When to Seek Emergency Help

While mild symptoms can often be managed at home, seek immediate medical care if you experience:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Choking or sensation of an obstruction in the throat
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Signs of dehydration like dizziness, fainting, or dark urine
  • Inability to pass stool or gas for more than 24 hours
  • Intense or worsening abdominal pain
  • Blood in the stool
  • Fever over 101℉ F (38℉C)

These can indicate a blockage, perforation, or other serious complication requiring hospital treatment. Don’t wait it out at home if any concerning symptoms arise.

When to Go to the ER

Head straight to the emergency room if you experience:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Choking on a large piece of Styrofoam
  • Severe chest or abdominal pain
  • Persistent vomiting or inability to keep down liquids
  • Signs of shock like low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, dizziness

Don’t drive yourself or take public transportation in a medical emergency. Call 911 or have someone drive you to get immediate care.

These symptoms can progress rapidly and require IV fluids, medication, endoscopic removal of obstruction, or emergency surgery. Waiting too long can risk serious complications.

When to Call Your Doctor

Contact your physician if you experience any of the following after ingesting Styrofoam:

  • Moderate stomach pain lasting more than 6 hours
  • Diarrhea or constipation for more than 2 days
  • Nausea and vomiting that persists beyond 24 hours
  • Signs of dehydration like excessive thirst, headache, or dark urine
  • Inability to pass gas or mild abdominal distention
  • Small amount of blood in stool

Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms, order imaging tests if needed, and provide guidance on managing complications. Calling early when symptoms first arise gives you the best chance of preventing major issues.

Key Takeaways

  • Styrofoam is not edible and can cause gastrointestinal complications if swallowed.
  • Small pieces may pass through the body uneventfully, but larger pieces can obstruct the intestines.
  • Symptoms like vomiting, constipation, and severe pain require prompt medical treatment.
  • X-rays can detect Styrofoam and help diagnose obstructions or perforations.
  • Serious complications may require hospitalization for IV fluids, endoscopy, or surgery.
  • Prevent accidental ingestion by properly handling and disposing of Styrofoam products.

While Styrofoam itself is relatively inert, swallowing significant amounts can be dangerous. Seek immediate medical help if you experience any concerning symptoms after accidental ingestion. Taking quick action is crucial for preventing lasting harm.

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