Shiny, small coin-like, lithium button batteries can look like candy to young children. Too easy to find in house-hold products like remotes, phones, watches and even toys, when a child swallows a battery it can lead to severe injury or even death. Despite the risks, many parents are unaware that such ordinary items can be pose such a grave danger to their children.
More dangerous than the average AA or AAA batteries, lithium button batteries are smaller in size which makes it easier for them to be swallowed. They also have weaker casings and once they have been swallowed, the poisonous reaction begins much more quickly. The danger lies in the chemical reaction between the child’s saliva in the esophagus and the electric microcurrent in a battery. The saliva triggers a chemical burn that can eat a hole through the esophagus within in just two hours. When caught in time, treatment can be extensive including feeding tubes, breathing tubes and even multiple surgeries.
Children vary in severity to their reactions to swallowed batteries depending on the age of the child and how quickly parents sought medical care. Children around two-years old are at the highest risk because they are at the stage where placing objects in their mouths is common.
What Does a Real Case Look Like?
Some cases, like the one ABC recently covered where 3 year-old Umar Khan swallowed a lithium button battery, illustrate what can happen when the problem is addressed within the 2-hour window. Umar was taken to the ER soon after swallowing the battery after his parents noticed the hyper-active boy was strangely subdued. An x-ray showed the battery in the esophagus, and the doctors were able to operate quickly. Even in this best-case scenario of timely and accurate medical help, Umar needed a nutrition tube to the stomach for three months. Luckily, Umar walked away with no long term damage to his esophagus or vocal cords.
Unfortunately, 2 year-old Emmett Rauch was not as lucky and has had 18 surgeries as a result of swallowing a lithium button battery. No one saw the child swallow the battery and because the signs of poisoning can be almost identical to that of a common cold, his parents did not seek medical attention for 3 days. By then the battery had eaten away at his throat, and he had to have 4 inches of his esophagus surgically removed. He has also had lung problems and other associated medical issues.
How Often Does it Happen?
These accidents occur a lot more often than you think. During 2010, 18 children like Umar and Emmett died as a result of their injuries. That year alone there were 3,400 battery-swallowing cases reported and about 85% of these involved button batteries. As digital devices that use button-batteries like laptops, iPads and cameras have become more frequent, the number of incidents has steadily increased at an alarming rate. With more technology becoming common place, we could see these numbers continue to rise.
What Can We Do For Prevention?
Despite the high number of incidents, a recent study found that only 66% of parents are aware of the dangers associated with lithium button batteries. Several organizations have begun outreach in this area. Recent news coverage is increasing awareness for this problem, but we can still do more. Discuss the risks other parents you know.
Look for Button Batteries Here:
- Remotes (the most common source for swallowed batteries)
- Computers, iPads
- Electronic scales, calculators
- Singing/Talking greeting cards or books
- Flashlights, reading lights
- Flameless candles
- Hearing aids
- Video games
- Remote car keys
- Digital thermometers
How to Stay Safe:
- Identify objects that contain batteries
- Secure battery compartments with heavy tape
- Put replacement batteries out of reach
Symptoms After Swallowing:
- Difficulty Swallowing
*If you think your child may have swallowed any object, bring them to the ER as soon as possible.
Call the National Battery Ingestion Hotline at (202) 625-3333 for additional treatment information.