Common Batteries Pose Danger for Kids

By Jay Hochman, MD, Pediatric Gastroenterologist

As a pediatric gastroenterologist, I have seen the dangers button batteries pose for infants and children. If swallowed, a button battery can get lodged in the esophagus (throat) where saliva triggers the electrical current causing a chemical reaction. In less than two hours, it can cause a severe burn, which often requires a complicated series of surgeries and time in an intensive care unit (ICU).

These batteries, made of lithium, are much more powerful than alkaline batteries. About the size of a coin (or smaller), they can easily make it into a mouth, nose or ear. It is when one of these lithium batteries gets “stuck” in the body—not moving through a digestive tract—that it most often causes serious complications. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 2,500 button batteries are ingested each year in the U.S., and every three hours a child is admitted to an emergency room for swallowing one.

At Children’s, we recently treated three children in one week who had each swallowed a lithium button battery. One of these patients was 14-month-old Rodney Jr., whose father noticed the toddler was acting irritable, especially at meal time. He was having trouble keeping food down so his father took him to his pediatrician, where an X-ray revealed that a nickel-sized lithium button battery was stuck in his esophagus. After the button battery was removed, Rodney Jr. spent a few weeks in our PICU. See below for photos of Rodney Jr.'s journey.

The potential complications of button battery ingestion are scary, but there is a lot each of us can do to help prevent our children from getting hurt.

Safety Checklist:

  • Investigate common household items (key fobs, watches, cameras) for button batteries. Get on your hands and knees—a bathroom scale is one example you may not think of that is kid-accessible.
  • Keep items with button batteries in them out of reach and take extra preventative measures, such as duct taping the back of the TV remote control.
  • Remove musical greeting cards from your child’s reach. They are not toys. The battery can be ripped out of the paper in seconds.
  • Be aware of toys that pose a risk. Did you know some fidget spinners with LED lights are powered by button batteries? Read the age and warning labels on toys and electronics. All infant and children’s toys should have safety doors that require a screwdriver to change batteries. Toys geared toward adults do not have the same regulations.
  • Dispose of batteries properly. Visit Earth911.com or call 1-800-CLEANUP to find the nearest facility. Keep them in a child-proof medicine bottle until you can get them safely out of the house.

If you think your child has swallowed a lithium button battery or lodged it in the nose or ear, call the National Battery Ingestion Hotline at 202-625-3333, and go to an emergency room immediately. In most cases, an X-ray will show if the swallowed object is a battery and if it is stuck in the esophagus or in a safer location like the stomach (where it is not considered an emergency). Do not induce vomiting or let your child eat or drink. He needs an empty stomach if surgery and anesthesia are required.

Share these facts, and you may save a life.