"It looks like a bomb went off" - Beware of button batteries this holiday season and the damage they can do if a child swallows one

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Children and adults will be opening up brand new toys and gadgets this week, many with button batteries. It’s important that families hear the warning about the dangers of children swallowing button batteries now, to prepare their homes and protect their children.

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Actual damage from button battery ingestion

It looks like a little bomb has gone off in a child’s throat.

“He said, ‘Ma-maw, I swallowed a battery’ with a big smile on his face.” While 4-year-old Hunter may have been pleased with himself, Becky Roberts knew that it was no joking matter. She rushed her grandson to Dayton Children’s Hospital.

While Hunter’s case happened on an ordinary day in September, many children and adults will be opening up brand new toys and gadgets this week, many with button batteries. It’s important that families hear the warning about the dangers of button batteries now, to prepare their homes and protect their children.

The number of serious injuries or deaths from button battery ingestions has increased more than nine fold in the past 10 years, according to Safe Kids Worldwide. The National Capital Poison Center says more than 2,700 kids suffered an injury from a button battery last year alone. In Hunter’s case, Dayton Children’s doctors were able to remove the battery very quickly.

“Hunter had trouble swallowing for a few days, but the doctors say he only suffered minimal damage which healed well,” says Roberts.

Hunter is among the lucky ones. Many times parents and grandparents aren’t aware their child has swallowed a button battery. The first symptoms can mimic the flu. It's not until their child starts having trouble swallowing or breathing, that they realize something is very wrong. By that time, the battery has done major damage.

“It looks like a little bomb has gone off in a child’s throat,” says Ravi Elluru, MD, PhD, advanced pediatric airway, ear, nose and throat doctor at Dayton Children’s. “You can see the indentation in the esophagus where the battery was and a lot of blackened scar tissue around it.” Dr. Elluru has had to reconstruct the airway of a child who swallowed a button battery.

How does the battery do damage?
“These coin-size batteries tend to get lodged right behind the larynx at the esophageal sphincter,” says Dr. Elluru. “All this real estate is so incredibly valuable, that any damage either to the food pipe or the larynx is considered ‘a worst case scenario.’”

“There is an electrical reaction between the button battery and the lining of the throat that produces a chemical,” Dr. Elluru explains. “That chemical then eats away at the tissue.”

“The larynx can be damaged, the nerves to the vocal cords can be paralyzed which can also make it hard to breathe, or the battery can burn a hole through the esophagus to the rest of the chest. If any secretions leak from the esophagus into the chest, it can cause an infection. That is rare, but a child can die within 12 to 24 hours.”

The timeline is incredibly short. Major damage can be done in as little as two hours. The damage can take years and several surgeries to repair. Even then, sometimes a return to normal is not possible.

What can parents do to protect their children?
Even though Becky had warned Hunter about the batteries, he found them in a drawer. Parents may need to take extra precautions to put them out of a child's reach.

Parents need to search their home to find items with button batteries. They often include:

  • Remote controls
  • Toys
  • Books with music or sounds
  • Greeting cards
  • Watches
  • Flameless candles
  • Key fobs
  • Scales
  • Thermometers, hearing aids, diabetic testing tools or other medical devices

Parents then need to put these items out of the reach of children. If the gadget can’t be put away, a piece of duct tape over the battery compartment may keep small children from getting to the battery inside. Parents can also warn family members, friends and caregivers to do the same.

What to do if you suspect battery ingestion
If you suspect a child has swallowed a button battery, get to the emergency department immediately. Time is the enemy. The longer a button battery sits against the tissue in a child’s throat, the more devastating the outcome will be.

If it’s nothing, you’ve only wasted an evening. If it’s a battery ingestion, you may have saved a life.

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Stacy Porter
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