Hidden Killers: Button Batteries

“Technology is, of course, a double edged sword.  Fire can cook our food, but also burn us.”  – Jason Silva

Since the 1800’s when the principle behind batteries was discovered, to the 1900’s when dry batteries were invented, to the 1970’s when lithium batteries, then button cell batteries were created, technology has rapidly progressed but also have the dangers associated with technology.

These round small batteries that have flat faces have various names – watch batteries, since one of its first uses was to power wrist watches; button batteries, when as small as shirt buttons; and coin batteries, when wider in size.  Nowadays, you will find them in small portable electronic devices as diverse as cardiac pacemakers to musical greeting cards, hearing aids to flashing shoes, automobile keyless entry transmitters to flameless candles.  But beware of the dangers associated with these batteries!

Dr. Lauren Willis, pediatric gastroenterologist at Western Montana Clinic in Missoula, says she has known infants younger than one year of age who have ingested batteries or been fed a battery by a sibling, but most commonly these ingestions occur in toddlers and children attracted by bright shiny objects.  Most commonly, she sees presenting symptoms of vomiting, gagging, coughing, choking (during eating or drinking, but also neither), refusal to eat, or pooling of saliva in the child’s mouth.  Even if no foreign body ingestion is suspected by the family, she would recommend considering obtaining x-rays to look for occult foreign bodies.

If you think or know that your child has swallowed a button battery, the location of the battery MUST be evaluated immediately, since in as little as two hours, the battery may burn through the esophagus (the swallowing tube that connects the mouth to the stomach) thus requiring surgery, months of artificial feeding and breathing tubes, or even death.   Serious tissue injury may also occur if the battery is lodged in a nose or ear, so this situation also requires urgent evaluation.  In the emergency department, you child will likely have x-rays, including two views of that area, taken to determine exactly where the battery is located.  Further management will depend on where the battery is located and how long it has been there.

Safety tips:

  • Look for these small portable electronic devices that use button batteries, and ensure the battery can only be removed using a tool, such as a screwdriver.
  • Keep loose batteries out of sight and reach of children. Store them in a locket cabinet or container.
  • Watch children carefully if they are using devices that contain these batteries.
  • Immediately take the child to the emergency department if he or she has placed the battery inside his or her body and cannot be easily removed.
  • If possible, bring a similar battery for identification purposes. DO NOT put any drops into the nose or ear, until your child has been evaluated.  DO NOT try to make your child vomit.
  • Call the National Battery Ingestion Hotline if you have any questions: (800) 498-8666. They may recommend feeding your child honey, though otherwise do not give your child anything to eat or drink until evaluation occurs.  The honey may interrupt current and therefore decrease potential thermal burn, as well as facilitate passage from the esophagus into the stomach where there is a lower chance of serious injury.