Button batteries: The hidden dangers and what you can do to keep your kids safe


Button Battery

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and poison control centers across the U.S., 3,500 button coin batteries are ingested each year, sending thousands of children to the emergency room.

Button or lithium coined batteries are small, coin-size batteries found in many electronic devices such as wristwatches, flashlights, light/laser pointer, penlight, remote control devices, hearing aids, calculators, toys and recorded birthday cards. Their small size means they are easy to swallow. These batteries can cause serious injury, and even death, if the battery is swallowed or gets stuck in a child’s ear or nose.

Children are very inquisitive. As parents, it can be a constant struggle to keep small objects out of your child’s mouth. Since button batteries are small, bright and shiny, they are very attractive to toddlers and young children. For this reason, it’s very important to understand the hidden dangers of button batteries and what you can do to safeguard your home to ensure your children and others are out of harm’s way.

How do button batteries injure children?

When button batteries come in contact with body fluids after accidental ingestion, the battery generates an electric current that can leak corrosive chemicals which can cause internal damage due to the buildup of sodium hydroxide. The chemicals can perforate parts of the digestive system, such as the esophagus. Since the esophagus is near major structures of the body – like your trachea, blood vessels and heart – the extension of damage can be even more serious, leading to permanent damage or even death. Even if the battery is old or flat, it can still produce enough electricity to cause burns inside your body. Batteries lodged in the nose and ear can cause extensive damage to the ear drum and other structures.

What are the signs and symptoms that I should be aware of?

When a child ingests a button battery, your child may be asymptompatic – meaning there may be no noticeable symptoms until the battery has caused internal damage. Symptoms to look out for include difficulty eating, coughing, choking, drooling, refusal to eat, noisy breathing, and chest or abdominal pain. It is important to seek medical care ASAP even if you have a suspicion your child swallowed a battery.

If my child ingested a button battery, what should I do?

  • Prompt action is critical. Don't wait for symptoms to develop. Please take your child to a nearest Emergency facility ASAP. Immediately call the 24-hour National Battery Ingestion Hotline at 1-(800)-498-8666 or call your poison center at 1-(800)-222-1222.  Provide the battery identification number if you have it. It can be found on the package or from a matching battery. 
  • Do not induce vomiting. Instead, administer 2 teaspoons of honey immediately by mouth every 10 minutes for up to six doses while in route to the emergency room. This should be done if the battery was ingested within the prior 12 hours and if the child is 12 months of age or older because honey is not safe in children younger than one year. Honey is administered to coat the battery and prevent local generation of hydroxide, thereby delaying alkaline burns to adjacent tissue. Honey slows the development of battery injury but won’t stop it from occurring. Honey is NOT a substitute for removal of a battery lodged in the esophagus. Seek emergency care.
  • Seek emergency care. If the battery was swallowed, don’t eat or drink until medical help has been sought. An X-ray is typically taken in the Emergency department to confirm and to assess the position. Batteries stuck in the esophagus must be removed as quickly as possible as severe damage can occur in just two hours. Batteries in the nose or ear also must be removed immediately to avoid permanent damage. Symptoms to watch for are pain and discharge from the nose or ears. Do not use nose or ear drops until the person has been examined by a physician. 

What should parents do to prevent accidental battery ingestion? 

Prevention and early recognition are crucial. Here are a few important tips to keep in mind:

  • Search your home for devices that may contain button batteries and keep them out of the reach of children. Store spare batteries in a place that is not easily accessible to young children.
  • Remember that even used batteries that are no longer strong enough to power a device can still cause harm.  Wrap used batteries securely and discard them where a child cannot find them.
  • Do not allow children to play with batteries.
  • Check and secure (with tape or screws) battery compartments on household products, especially devices (like a TV remote control) that can open or that might pop up if the device is dropped.

Click here to learn more about the dangers of battery ingestion and for additional prevention tips to keep in mind. Click here to learn more about Texas Children’s Center for Childhood Injury Prevention.