Skip to main content
If Your Child Swallows a Button Battery, It’s an Emergency

You are listening to Healthy Kids Zone:

If Your Child Swallows a Button Battery, It’s an Emergency

Apr 06, 2023

There are around 6,000 pediatric ER visits for button battery ingestion every year in the United States. If you even suspect your child may have swallowed a button battery, take them to the emergency room immediately for surgery. Ingesting a battery can cause severe and potentially permanent damage to a child’s esophagus or digestive tract in as little as two hours. Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, discusses how to keep your kids safe and why button batteries can be so dangerous.

Episode Transcript

In the past few weeks, I've had three of my patients seen in the ER and taken to surgery for swallowing batteries. While one was luckily a false alarm, the other two ended up going to the operating room, and one had serious complications.

Increase of Button Battery Ingestion in Children

Button battery ingestion is becoming a big problem not only because of how frequently it is happening, but the complications can be lifelong. Since 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that there are about 6,000 annual emergency room visits across the United States just due to battery button ingestion.

Button Battery Ingestion Can Cause Lifelong Complications

Button batteries are especially a problem because they are small and easy for kids to swallow, but then they get stuck in the esophagus or the stomach. The lithium in the batteries continues to have a strong current even after you take them out of the toys or whatever they were used in. And once the battery comes in contact with saliva, there is a chemical reaction that can burn holes in the digestive system. It can cause a severe amount of damage in as little as two hours. Kids who swallow button batteries often present like kids who swallow coins. They have breathing problems with coughing and drooling, or they can vomit or refuse to eat and then gag when they try to eat or drink, and they'll say their chest hurts when they swallow.

What to Do if Your Child Swallows a Button Battery

Most of the time, parents won't see their kid actually swallow the button battery. If you think your child may have swallowed a button battery, you need to act quickly. While you may think that your child just should come to the doctor or an urgent care, you really should take them directly to the closest children's emergency room.

There are new guidelines from the National Poison Center about what to do if your child swallows a button battery, and it may sound a little strange, but parents should give their child honey immediately while they head to the hospital. Now, of course, you shouldn't do this if your child is under twelve months old. But, hopefully, you don't have any button batteries in reach of a baby. The reason for giving honey after swallowing a button battery is that it can reduce esophageal injury in that short critical time window between when a child swallows the battery and when it is removed  by a surgeon.

If a button battery is found on an X-ray of your child's neck, chest, or abdomen, they will need to be taken straight to the operating room. And if they are being seen outside of the ER, that may waste precious time and more damage can be caused by the battery.

Do not make your child vomit and don't allow them to eat or drink. That can cause more damage and delay operating room time. If your child needs surgery, the surgeon will be able to discuss your child's case specifically and what the treatment plan is. Some kids only need an overnight observation in the hospital after surgery. Other kids will go home with a feeding tube inserted into their nose and they will need to have nothing in their esophagus for a few weeks. That means nothing by mouth. Often, the surgeon won't be able to tell you the complete plan until they do the endoscopy to look at the damage in the esophagus and the stomach.

Preventing Accidental Button Battery Ingestion in Children

Kids put things they're not supposed to in their mouth all the time. And while it's really hard to keep your kids from swallowing objects they already have in their mouths, because they will often swallow as you run towards them and scream "no," it's important to childproof as much as you can, when you have a little one, to make sure there's nothing they could put in their mouths that they're not supposed to in the first place. Make sure toys and stuffed animals don't have tiny buttons that can be pulled off. Make sure all battery components are secured. You can even consider putting like duct tape over the battery compartment to ensure another level of safety. And get down on the floor and look at everything from your child's point of view to see what you're missing because it's not always easy, but taking a little extra time to secure any potential choking hazards could make a huge difference.

Finally, if you think your child has swallowed something, call Poison Control right away. Many parents call the on-call pediatrician, but we will either tell you to take your child to the emergency room or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 because they will have better information and advice for you. Don't waste time waiting, call Poison Control first.