Swallowing “button” batteries can be fatal for children



Button batteries are small round batteries found in items such as toys, greeting cards, watches, hearing aids, games and flashing jewelry—all products in the average American household during the holiday season.

Toxicologists at the Tennessee Poison Center (TPC), housed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, say that adults need to be aware that all too often these little batteries find their way into little people.

In 2014 approximately 3,500 people, mostly children, ingested button batteries and reported that event to state poison centers. And each year in the U.S., more than 2,800 children are treated in emergency rooms after swallowing button batteries.

The good news is that most of these small batteries can pass through the digestion system without harm. But, poison center officials say, when a button battery is lodged in the esophagus it can have serious and life-threatening effects because the human body is a conductor and the battery will produce electric current that begins to burn the tissue. Life-threatening burns can occur within three hours of contact.

In rare instances, children have even died from hemorrhagic shock associated with burns from button batteries lodged in the esophagus, which can burn through tissue and major blood vessels in the neck.

Patients with button batteries lodged in their esophagus complain of chest pain or tightness, coughing, foreign body sensation, or, in more serious cases, bloody vomiting.

An X-ray is recommended as soon as possible if a button battery is ingested. The battery will be visualized on X-ray and either removed through an endoscopy or, if the battery is not lodged in the esophagus, allowed to safely pass through the stomach and intestines.

“During the holidays, we all feel stressed and busy, but if a button battery ingestion is even suspected, quick medical evaluation should be a priority,” said Donna Seger, M.D., medical director and executive director of the Tennessee Poison Center.

The safest way to avoid exposures is to keep lithium battery-controlled devices — remote controls, calculators, watches, key fobs, flameless candles, musical greeting cards, flashing holiday jewelry or decorations— out of reach of children.

TPC is a member of the Tennessee State Department of Health Commissioner’s Council on Injury Prevention, a group of organizations throughout the state who collaborate to reduce injury deaths in Tennessee.

If you suspect a poisoning, call Tennessee Poison Center for treatment advice. The Poison Help toll-free number is 1-800-222-1222. All calls are fast, free and confidential.