Andrew Gledhill M.D., PGY2, Baylor College of Medicine Residency Program, The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

As technology advances, it can be challenging to keep up with all the latest gadgets. Handheld devices can do just about anything we want done. While these advances bring countless benefits, they also present a sometimes-unfamiliar hazard to children. Powering many of these devices – TV remotes, garage door openers, watches, toys, and even musical greeting cards to name a few – are button batteries. 

The Center for Poison Control reports that every year in the United States, more than 3,500 children swallow a button battery. Infants who are learning to crawl, and are increasingly curious and able to get into things, are at greatest risk.  Toddlers and young children are also at a higher risk, as they may be able to open battery cases on toys and electronics, and can still be curious enough to put things into their mouths. 

The danger associated with button batteries occurs when a child swallows the battery and it becomes lodged in their throat.  When this happens, secretions from the mouth and throat cover the battery and allow electricity to pass from the battery into the surrounding tissue. If left long enough, the battery destroys surrounding tissue, which can lead to serious burns, bleeding, scarring, perforation of the throat, and even death. The scariest part about this process is that it can happen within a few hours of swallowing the battery.

A child who swallows a button battery needs immediate medical attention. If you ever suspect your child has swallowed a button battery, take them to the emergency room immediately, where doctors can perform a chest X-ray to see if a battery is lodged in their throat. Be sure to bring whatever package or item the battery was in, so the battery can be identified. Signs that something is lodged in the throat include wheezing, noisy breathing, drooling, chest pain, coughing, gagging, or choking; but a child who has swallowed a button battery may not show any immediate symptoms, so if there is any suspicion that they may have swallowed one, take them to the emergency room to make sure. If your child has swallowed a button battery then doctors will use a special camera to look down the throat and remove the battery.

Although the risks associated with button batteries are scary, a lot can be done to prevent these complications. The best prevention is to simply look around and identify which items in your home use button batteries, and then make sure children can’t get to these devices. To do this, tighten screws on any devices holding button batteries, put those devices out of reach of children when possible, and keep extra batteries locked away altogether. Keep in mind that many toys today come with button batteries already installed. To learn more about this topic visit www.thebatterycontrolled.com.