The Dangers of Button Batteries

A common component of children's toys can cause some serious harm if ingested. Here, Dr. Curt Stankovic, the medical director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Children's Hospital of Michigan, offers insight.

Lithium ion button batteries

Two hours. That’s how quickly a lithium ion button battery can burn a hole in a child’s esophagus if swallowed. These shiny little discs, which are often enticing to toddlers, can be found in a number of kids toys and games – plus remote controls, key fobs and many other household items.

As the medical director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, Dr. Curt Stankovic is no stranger to the potential risks of these batteries. In fact, each week, the team at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan emergency department treats at least one child who has swallowed a button battery, which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

“As technology has improved, button batteries are commonplace now,” Dr. Stankovic says. “Just because they are more prevalent and have become used in all aspects of our daily lives, I think the number of patients we see with button battery ingestions has increased.”

With the holidays fast approaching, children could be exposed to even more button batteries at home. Here, Dr. Stankovic weighs in on the risks and offers advice for families.

Symptoms of ingestion

If your child receives new toys and games this holiday season that require button batteries, take note. Observe your child as he’s playing, and be sure to screw the battery compartment shut tightly before handing the toy over.

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“You just have to be super cautious, because you don’t want your child to remove the button battery,” Dr. Stankovic says.

If a child does manage to get a button battery out of a toy and ingests it, he might not show any signs of illness, particularly if the button battery does not get stuck in his esophagus.

“Generally, many children will be asymptomatic. But they still should seek medical care, because it still can be dangerous even if it doesn’t get lodged and it does travel to your stomach.”

Drooling, a hoarse voice, sore throat, chest pain, vomiting, not wanting to eat or having trouble breathing are some indicators that your child may have swallowed a button battery.

“Many of the button batteries now are lithium ion button batteries – and years ago, that really wasn’t the case. So, the difference between lithium ion and the other types of button batteries is that it can cause damage and, depending on if it gets lodged in the esophagus, it can cause damage quickly,” he says, “so it’s actually time-sensitive.”

Getting help

If parents are 100 percent sure it’s a button battery, get to the emergency department immediately.

“What parents can do to help their children en route to the emergency department is get honey. Two teaspoons of honey every 10 minutes,” he says.

Because it is thick and viscous, honey goes down and helps coat both the esophagus and the button battery – and ultimately slows down the rate of damage and perforation.

“The hole causes a perforation in your esophagus and, when you have a hole in your esophagus, that’s basically communication between your GI tract and your chest,” he says. “This can result in severe infections that are life threatening, so you don’t want that hole to happen.

“You have to go to an emergency department that has the capabilities to take these out, because if it’s stuck in the esophagus, you have to remove it as rapidly as possible,” he continues.

That’s where Children’s Hospital of Michigan comes in. The team at Children’s Hospital of Michigan can perform surgery, which involves the use of a scope, to take the battery out and look at the area and assess how deep the burn is.

When it comes to care, don’t delay, Dr. Stankovic says.

For more information on Children’s Hospital of Michigan, visit childrensdmc.org.

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