Button batteries are the common term for lithium batteries. Some people may also call them “coin” batteries or “flat” batteries. They are often used in toys and many household items. Because of the size and the appearance of a coin or small shiny object, many kids play with these if they have access to them.
Unfortunately, many children will place these in their mouth. There has been an average of 3,500 button battery ingestions per year and the incidence has increased in the last decade. Ebony Hunter, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital gives parents some pointers in case their child ingests a button battery.
Why is swallowing button batteries so harmful?
When a button battery mixes with saliva or moist skin tissue in general, it triggers an alkaline (chemical) reaction that can burn the child in as little as one to two hours. Once this reaction starts, it literally liquefies and dissolves/burns the skin. Even worse, if the button battery isn’t removed promptly, the reaction can continue after the battery is removed causing severe damage.
What should parents do if they think their child has swallowed a button battery?
If there is any concern for ingestion of a button battery, a parent/guardian should take the child directly to the emergency department for evaluation since damage done by button batteries can be rapid and severe. If the child does not have vomiting or difficulty with breathing, they can give the child honey. Honey has been proven to help neutralize the damage to the tissue caused by a button battery and can lead to better outcomes. However, do not give the child anything else to eat or drink in the event they need to go to the operating room to have the button battery removed. Forcing the child to drink other liquids can make the reaction worse. Also, do not try to make the child vomit. This can cause more harm as well.
What are some of the signs of button battery ingestion?
Some children have no signs immediately after ingestion. However, if a child has had a button battery stuck in the esophagus for a significant amount of time, they can have pain, drooling, difficulty with swallowing, change in voice, chest pain, coughing or spitting of blood, decreased drinking or eating, or abdominal pain. The symptoms are broad and largely based on where the battery is positioned.
What can parents do to prevent button battery ingestions?
There are several things you can do to try to prevent button battery ingestions in the home.
- First and foremost, try to avoid toys and household items that require the use of button batteries.
- For the items that have button batteries, place those out of reach and sight of children.
- It is also important that you lock spare batteries in a safe place to which children cannot have access.
- Tell any and all caregivers about the risk of button batteries so that they may secure their homes and surroundings as well.
Are there any other things you would like to share about button batteries?
Yes actually. I know we are talking about ingestion of button batteries. However, I would like to warn parents that children who place button batteries in their nose, ears and other orifices can have just as severe outcomes as all body orifices are moist and can trigger the severe reaction. Hence, they would need to take the child to the emergency department immediately if there is a suspicion of this as well.
Read a patient story about a baby who swallowed a battery.
On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital experts. Visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org/Stories each Monday for the latest report. You also can explore more advice from Ebony Hunter, M.D.