Lithium disc or “button” batteries–those coin-sized round batteries–are found in many items these day, including mini remote control devices, watches, flameless candles, musical greeting cards, bathroom scales, hearing aids, calculators, and small electronic toys. Because of their small size and appealing shape (looking very much like shiny candy bits), button batteries are frequently swallowed by toddlers, dogs, and cats.
Any ingestion of a button battery should be considered a medical emergency. Children should be taken to a hospital emergency department, and pets should be taken to emergency veterinary care. DO NOT try to induce vomiting as a way to remove the battery from the stomach–the caustic nature of the battery can damage the esophagus as much coming up as going down…and you also run the risk of having the battery get stuck in the esophagus, which could block a child’s airway.
Why are button batteries so dangerous?
Although the batteries appear to be solid bits of metal, they actually contain many hazardous chemicals, including mercury, silver, zinc, manganese, cadmium, lithium, sulfur oxide, copper, brass, or steel. The batteries work when a current passes from the acidic anode side to the alkalinic cathode side. Both the acid side and the alkaline side can cause severe tissue damage as the battery slides down the esophagus. In fact, one 3-volt battery can cause tissue death (necrosis) with only 15 minutes of contact. Within 2 hours, severe burns are likely in the area where the battery settles.
Unfortunately, damage can continue even after the battery is removed, and multiple surgeries may be necessary to repair any damage caused by the burns. One doctor has said that the damage caused by button batteries is similar to the kind of damage you might see if someone swallowed drain opener or lye.
What to do if your child swallows a button battery
Unless you see your child swallow a battery, it is difficult to recognize the symptoms because they are variable and nonspecific. A child may cry uncontrollably, vomit, or even show signs of an upper respiratory infection. The only way to definitely diagnose the problem is to x-ray the child’s esophagus and stomach.
If you believe your child swallowed a battery, Safe Kids Worldwide recommends these steps:
- Go to the emergency room immediately. Tell doctors and nurses that your child may have swallowed a battery. If possible, provide the medical team with the identification number found on the battery’s package.
- Do not let the child eat or drink until a chest x-ray can determine if a battery is present.
- Do not induce vomiting.
- Call the National Battery Ingestion Hotline at 202-625-3333 for additional treatment information.
What if your pet swallows a button battery?
Vets recommend emergency treatment at a veterinary hospital. Do not try to induce vomiting, and do not use activated charcoal. The battery will have to be removed surgically.
Preventing button battery ingestion
Safe Kids USA recommends:
- SEARCH your home, and any place your child goes, for gadgets that may contain button batteries.
- SECURE button battery-controlled devices out of sight and reach of children and keep loose batteries locked away.
- SHARE this life-saving information with caregivers, friends, family members and sitters.
To read more about battery safety and other tips for keeping children safe, visit Safe Kids USA here: www.SafeKids.org
New York Times blog about button batteries and kids: Peril Lurks in Lithium Cell Batteries
To read a more technical medical paper about battery ingestion and its effects, click here: Disk Battery Ingestion
To learn more about the legal side of toxic chemical exposure, visit our website at www.hensonfuerst.com/ToxicExposure. If you have questions, HensonFuerst has answers.