Button batteries dangerous if swallowed

Dr. (Maj.) Erika Petrik
Wiesbaden Army Health Clinic

People may know that swallowing a battery is not a good idea, but this discussion is meant to clue people into the dangers of the small batteries, often called “button batteries” that are about the size of a small coin as these batteries pose an additional risk when swallowed. Unfortunately children are getting more access to these types of batteries than ever before. Even things, like singing greeting cards have button batteries in them. Unlike larger batteries, button batteries are easy to swallow due to their small size and smooth edges. This means that children may not alert anyone they have swallowed one. What’s worse is that the initial symptoms caused can be so vague that caregivers may not suspect an ingested button battery.

According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, swallowed button batteries can lead to serious damage to tissues of the gastrointestinal system in as little as two hours. One of the reasons this occurs so quickly is that the damage isn’t from leaking battery acid as with larger batteries. It is from the electrical current itself that transmits directly to tissues, which is often amplified by things like gastric juices or even saliva. These types of batteries have a special design to transmit an electrical current. On one side of the battery is the anode where the current flows from the outside to inside and on the other side is the cathode where the current flows from inside to outside. This current is quick and highly concentrated and thus is caustic to tissue, burning it directly. You can visualize this yourself by placing a button battery between a couple pieces of deli meat — within a couple hours you can see the damage that can occur. Don’t forget to ensure no one eats your test deli meat and battery by accident!

It was already mentioned that a child who has swallowed a button battery may only have vague symptoms like an upset stomach, mild cough, or increased saliva production leading to drooling. Therefore putting these symptoms into context of what the child was doing prior to their onset helps to provide a clue that the symptoms may be due to a swallowed button battery. If you suspect your child swallowed a button battery, go to a hospital emergency room right away. Do not allow any further drinking or eating until the child is evaluated and do not induce vomiting—these things can make the situation worse.
What can parents do today? Focusing on reducing harm from swallowed button batteries by simple preventive measures is an important first step. Keep button batteries out of reach of children. Examine devices to see if they have these batteries and keep them out of reach of infants and toddlers. Supervise young children who are playing with objects that contain button batteries. Finally, dispose of old button batteries right away—they may not function anymore to charge up a device, but may still produce enough electrical current to cause harm if swallowed. If you have any further questions, please feel free to reach out to the Wiesbaden Army Health Clinic or visit www.safekids.org/safetytips/field_risks/batteries for more information.