Button batteries are small, disc-shaped batteries suitable for many electronic devices such as watches, hearing aids, remote controls, calculators, and some games and toys. These batteries not only present a significant choking hazard for small children, but also pose a risk of toxic exposure. About 2,500 cases of accidental button battery ingestion occur in the United States each year, meaning a child enters an emergency room somewhere in the country every three minutes for a button battery-related injury.
Button battery injuries have grown more common in recent years due to the substantial number of consumer products that use lithium button batteries. It’s essential for parents to keep these batteries out of reach of small children and carefully keep track of any devices that use them. For example, a remote control that clatters to the floor may expel a button battery that a small child could then pick up and ingest.
How Do Button Batteries Harm Children?
Button batteries typically retain some charge even after they stop supplying power to a device. This means an apparently “dead” battery can still contain voltage. This residual electric current can injure a child in several ways, depending on how the child comes into contact with the battery. It may also take some time for symptoms to appear, particularly when a child swallows a battery. The early symptoms are like that of a typical infection, and this can make it difficult for doctors to treat button battery injuries.
When a child inserts a button battery into the ear canal or nasal cavities, the electric current in the battery affects the surrounding tissues. In the ear, a lodged battery can lead to damage to the tympanic membrane, hearing loss, and may even damage the nerves of the face, resulting in facial paralysis. In a nasal cavity, the battery will cause scar tissue to form. It may also lead to nasal septal perforation, periorbital cellulitis, or a nasal mucosal injury.
If swallowed, a button battery will rapidly increase the pH levels of surrounding tissues within the body. This can cause esophageal perforation, tracheoesophageal fistula, esophageal stricture, mediastinitis, vocal cord paralysis, even fatal hemorrhaging. When a button battery and saliva touch, a chemical reaction can cause the battery to stick to the inside of the esophagus. These symptoms develop quite rapidly, sometimes in as little as two hours, and the risk of choking on button batteries is greater for toddlers and infants who can pick up small objects.
What to Do About Button Battery Injuries
Parents who suspect a child has ingested a button battery should seek emergency medical attention as soon as possible. Although it can be difficult to accurately diagnose, parents should stay vigilant for symptoms including:
- Decreased appetite
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Abdominal pain
- Bloody stool
- Bloody saliva
- Sudden crying fits
- Hoarse voice
It’s important to refrain from giving a child any medications that may cause him or her to vomit or have a bowel movement. Children who ingest button batteries should not eat or drink anything until after receiving medical attention. Milk is a particularly poor choice as it will exacerbate the chemical reaction, resulting in further damage. A physician will typically positively diagnose a button battery injury with an x-ray, and surgical removal is the typical treatment method.
Parents should also keep their legal options in mind after a child experiences a button battery injury. For example, if a children’s toy includes a button battery but does not have any safety warnings about the battery, or the child can easily remove the battery, a product liability claim may be in order. If a physician fails to accurately diagnose a button battery injury, it may constitute a medical malpractice claim if another reasonable doctor in the same situation would have positively identified the issue.