The little-known health risk of giving children bubble tea

The little-known health risk of giving children bubble tea

It's an unusual, but very real risk.

Can kids drink tea? There are many debatable answers and reasons as to why kids should or shouldn’t drink tea. Still, especially in Asia, tea is popular among children, and even more popular is bubble tea made so tempting with those chewy little pearls made of tapioca.

However, one mum recently learned in a very scary manner of a little-known risk of this type of tea, particularly related to the tapioca pearls. 

can kids drink tea

Can Kids Drink Tea? Just be Careful of Bubble Tea

Taiwanese milk tea (or bubble tea as it’s popularly known) is loved for its sweet taste and unusual texture given by the addition of “black peals”, or tiny tapioca balls.

However, when giving bubble tea to little ones (even though this might only be an occasional treat), please remember this cautionary story about eight-year-old Xiao Lin from China.  

What Happened? 

Xiao Lin endured pneumonia, fever and coughing for over six months. His mum, Linlin, didn’t think too much of it and gave him medicine. The medicine helped to soothe his symptoms for a while, but they soon returned.

However, Xiao Lin’s coughing took a turn for the worse, and was coupled with high fever. But strangely, he did not show any classic flu symptoms such as a runny nose. Concerned about the condition of her child, Linlin took him to the local hospital for a thorough medical checkup. 

After running some tests, doctors found out that Xiao Lin had suffered multiple attacks of pneumonia in the past six months, which was highly unusual.

They deduced that there was probably a foreign object inside him that led to these symptoms. Only after inserting a probe into his lungs were they able to confirm their diagnosis.

can kids drink tea

Xiao Lin’s lunch endoscopy showed a foreign object blocking his air passages. | Image Source: YouTube

Xiao Lin’s endoscopy showed a black tapioca pearl – a common bubble tea topping – stuck in his right lung. Soon after this discovery, the doctors took the eight-year-old to the operating room, where they surgically extracted the tapioca pearl. 

The Aftermath

Surprisingly, the pearl looked brand new even after six months – it had not broken down at all!

The doctor in charge explains that as the lungs do not secrete digestive juices, their main mechanism of defense from a foreign object is to wrap it with secretions. This meant that over time, the black pearl was set to only grow larger, potentially becoming a life-threatening hazard.  


The pearl looked brand new even though it had been in Xiao Lin’s Lungs for six months. | Image Source:

Furthermore, the main danger was related to the fact that the cause of the boy’s illness was so hard to detect. The good news is that Xiaolin is recovering from his ordeal.

What We Can Learn from this Incident

Looking back, Xiao Lin’s mum speculates that her son took a sip of the bubble tea when she took her eyes off it. However, he accidentally sucked in and choked on a tapioca pearl, which eventually lodged in his trachea. 

Xiao Lin’s disturbing experience is a warning to all parents to be mindful of even innocent-looking objects children are exposed to – even certain kinds of food and drinks. 

Here at theAsianparent we’ve also collated a few tips to help prevent such incident from occurring again. 

Preventive Measures to Take with Food and Drink:

Infants and Toddlers

  • Cut food appropriately:
    • Dice, shred, or cut up carrots, celery and green beans. 
    • Shred, dice or cut up carrots, celery, green beans, meats and cheeses. 
  • Dont’ feed them high risk choking hazards like:
    • small, hard foods like hard candies, cough drops, nuts, and popcorn
    • soft, sticky foods like chewing gum, marshmallows, jelly, or gummy candies
  • Never leave a small child unattended while eating and always supervise them. This pearl incident was the result of negligence.
  • Educate caregivers. In a situation where your child is left in the care of someone else, teach them about choking hazards and precautions to take to prevent choking. Identify emergency resources and contacts.
  • Seat your children while they eat and stop them from chatting, laughing, or playing while their mouth is still full of food or drinks. 
  • Never feed them huge balls of peanut butter. Spread a thin layer of peanut butter on bread, instead.
  • Cut high risk items like grapes, cherries or melon balls into quarters before feeding them to your child, remembering to de-seed it first. 
can kids drink tea

For young children, grapes are a common choking hazard that can kill. | Image Source: Stock photos

Older Children

  • Occasionally monitor your children in case anything happens. 
  • Teach them to alert you if they feel unsafe. Tell them about safety risks and to let you know immediately if something bad has happened or if they feel uncomfortable.
  • Remember that age does not matter. It doesn’t matter if your child can already chew his/her food properly. Grapes and tapioca pearls are the perfect size to block a child’s windpipe. Once the grape is stuck, the airway will be blocked completely. Continue cutting food for them if necessary and don’t forget to educate their caregivers as well. 
  • Continue avoiding the choking hazards above, and discourage your child from multitasking — when he’s eating, he shouldn’t be distracted from his meal.
  • Don’t give older children latex balloons to play with. Children often breathe in latex balloons while trying to blow them. They can even choke on the torn latex pieces. Unlike other things, latex is smooth and can twist itself to the shape of a child’s throat, suffocating them. First Aid is of no help as the air that pushes through the lungs can completely block the throat. 

What Can I Do if My Child Is Already Choking?

  • First, see if the object can be coughed out. Encourage your little one to cough so that the object is spat out.
  • When that doesn’t work, you can try to slap it out. So, help your child to bend forward. Then between their shoulder blades, give five sharp back blows using the heel of your hand. After five blows, check their mouth. If you can find anything there, ask your child to spit it out. 
  • Now, if you’ve tried both coughing it out and slapping it out, you can try to squeeze it out. For this, try giving not more than five abdominal thrusts to your little one. Here’s how you do it according to the American Red Cross:

– Stand or kneel behind the child and wrap your arms around his or her waist.

– Locate the navel with one or two fingers of one hand.

– Make a fist with the other hand and place the thumb side against the middle of the child’s abdomen, just above the navel and well below the lower tip of the breastbone.

– Grab your fist with your other hand and give quick, upward thrusts into the abdomen.

    • If none of the above works, call an ambulance. Continue your efforts to get the object out until the ambulance arrives.

Watch this video for a better understanding on how save a choking baby.


References: Margaret R. Hurd,, Nationwide Children’s, WebMD


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Ayu Idris

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