We present the results of a prospective study of 388 patients presenting with a history of swallowing a foreign body. We indicate whether the patients' symptoms and signs were associated with a retained foreign body. While tenderness on palpation was an unreliable sign, pooling at indirect laryngoscopy invariably predicted a retained object. In many patients, initial careful examination of the oropharynx by casualty officers would have shown a retained fishbone in the tonsil or tongue and would have resulted in 16 per cent fewer radiographs and 17 per cent fewer referrals to the ENT department. Radiography only improved management in a small minority and 35 per cent of films were interpreted incorrectly by casualty officers. A follow-up barium swallow disclosed a pathological lesion in a significant proportion of patients with bolus obstruction, whether or not this was passed spontaneously.