One hundred and fifteen patients, between 6 months and 12 years of age, had bronchoscopy on suspicion of foreign body aspiration. The histories of these patients were studied to examine the diagnostic value of signs, symptoms and examinations, and to determine the time that passed between aspiration and removal of the foreign body.
The sensitivity of the symptoms choking and coughing was fairly high (81 and 78%), but the specificity was poor. The sensitivity of a chest radiograph was 82%, the specificity 44%. The sensitivity of radiographs on inspiration and expiration was 80%, the specificity 55%. The patients had been referred with the initial diagnosis foreign body aspiration (80), pneumonia (34), or subglottic laryngitis (1). In 85 patients a foreign body was identified and extracted. The other 30 patients had respiratory tract infections. The initial diagnosis of foreign body aspiration was correct in 61 out of 85 patients. In these cases, the period between aspiration and extraction of the foreign body was a mean 6 days, compared with 55 days, if the initial diagnosis was pneumonia or sub-glottic laryngitis.
We conclude that the diagnosis of foreign body aspiration is too often missed, and that, apart from bronchoscopy, diagnostic tools are of little value.