Those shiny coin-like disc batteries (also known as button batteries) have overtaken traditional cylindrical batteries, due to their compact size and high-voltage power, and they are wreaking havoc on young children. Lithium disc batteries, commonly used in key fobs, digital thermometers, remote controls, watches, cameras, holiday ornaments, and hand-held electronic toys, are remarkably attractive to infants, toddlers, and young children, who tend to find ways to hide these glistening beauties in their ear canals, stick them up their noses, or worse, swallow them.
Annual button battery-related emergency room visits are in the 3,500 range, and this number continues to rise as more and more toys for toddlers require these small batteries. The issue has become such a significant problem that the American Academy of Pediatrics has established a Button Battery Task Force, which represents a “collaborative effort of representatives from relevant organizations in industry, medicine, public health, and government to develop, coordinate and implement strategies to reduce the incidence of button battery ingestion injuries in children.”
The majority of button battery injuries are from swallowing them, and especially for the smaller batteries, symptoms may go unnoticed for hours or even days. However, tissue damage, especially from the larger (nickel- or quarter-sized 3-volt) batteries, can begin within two hours. Such damage can lead to erosion of the esophagus, damage to the trachea (windpipe), and even entry into the major blood vessels of the chest. These can lead to irreversible organ damage or death. As children much more commonly present to emergency rooms having swallowed coins (which cause little damage, as long as they are eventually removed), there have been cases of erroneously mistaking an ingested lithium battery for a coin, as large disc batteries and coins look quite similar on an X-ray. Delays in treatment for battery ingestion can be deadly.
Battery placement into the ears or nose can also cause some serious damage, including nasal bleeding, infection, perforation of the nasal septum, and chronic scarring. Ear canals injuries, such as erosion of the skin, cartilage, ear drum, and ear bones, are also seen, especially from the smaller 1.5-volt disc batteries.
When the holiday gifts start coming in, parents should check that all battery compartments on children’s toys are adequately locked, and the locks (usually now with small screws) should be firmly replaced after battery replacement. Once a battery dies and is removed from a product, it needs to be discarded appropriately. “Dead” batteries continue to release a charge, and can cause some serious damage, even if they don’t provide enough juice to get a toy to work. All extra batteries should be stored in areas not accessible to young children.
With more and more data being released about the negative impact of screen time and electronics on child brain development, the added risk of physical damage needs to be mentioned, especially as the flickering lights, ringing bells, and tooting horns of the electronic toys hit so many households in the coming weeks.
If a parent is concerned that their child either swallowed a battery or placed one in an orifice, they should seek medical attention right away. Consider it on the same level as if a child had swallowed a poisonous substance. You shouldn’t sleep on it, and neither should the treating physician. If there is concern for a battery ingestion or placement, but it can’t be seen, an X-ray will reveal it. Treatment is immediate removal.