Button batteries, especially big, powerful lithium coin cell batteries, can badly injure or kill a child if they are swallowed and get stuck in the food pipe. Button batteries are small, round batteries that come in many different sizes and types. Lithium button batteries (often called ‘coin batteries’ or ‘coin cell batteries’) are most dangerous as they are larger and more powerful.
So, it’s important to keep spare and ‘dead’ lithium coin cell batteries and any objects with easily accessible lithium coin cell batteries out of children’s reach, and to act fast if you think your child may have swallowed one.
Children most at risk are between 1 and 4 years, but younger and older children can also be at risk.
Why are button batteries dangerous?
Most button batteries pass through the body without a problem. But if a button battery - particularly a lithium coin cell battery - gets stuck in the food pipe, energy from the battery reacts with saliva to make the body create caustic soda. This is the same chemical used to unblock drains! This can burn a hole through the food pipe and can lead to catastrophic internal bleeding and death. The reaction can happen in as little as two hours. Button batteries are also dangerous if they get stuck in a child’s nose or ear.
The size and power of the button battery and the size of the child matter. With a large, powerful lithium coin cell battery – for example a 3V CR2025 or CR2032 – and a small child, the risks are greatest.
Where do children find button batteries?
Typically, children find spare batteries in a drawer, get hold of ‘flat’ batteries that have fallen onto the floor or down the sofa, or take batteries from products like gaming headsets, car key fobs or slim audio visual remote controls.
Products may come with a spare lithium coin battery in a small plastic bag. When you buy replacement batteries, some are individually sealed in the pack and can only be removed with scissors. But, with others, especially cheaper ones you buy online or in discount stores, once you open the pack, all the batteries come out and some may fall on the floor. Spares often end up being stored in open containers or loose in a drawer.
‘Flat’ or ‘dead’ batteries
It’s not just fully charged lithium coin cell batteries that pose a risk. Modern devices need a lot of power. When power levels drop, we think the battery is flat and discard it. But, it can still have enough electrical charge left to badly injure a child.
Batteries in toys, gadgets and novelty items
Button batteries are used in an increasingly wide range of toys, novelty items, gadgets and other everyday objects you’ll find around the house. Lots of these objects have buttons and surfaces that young children love to explore and play with. Many are brightly coloured or otherwise appealing to children. These include:
- robot bug or fish toys
- light-up head bands
- gaming headsets
- slim remote controls
- car key fobs
- key finders
- children’s thermometers
- kitchen or bathroom scales
- musical cards
- novelty items like singing Santas and flashing wands
- fitness trackers
- fidget spinners with LED lights
- 3D glasses
- flameless candles, nightlights and tea lights
Batteries in children’s toys should either be enclosed by a screw and a secure compartment, or need two independent or simultaneous movements to open the battery compartment. But, toys bought online or from markets, discount stores or temporary shops may not follow toy safety regulations. And remember that older children may still be able to open secure battery compartments.
Who is at risk?
- Children are most at risk from 1 to 4 years, but younger and older children can also be at risk.
- Babies and toddlers are at particular risk as they explore the world by putting things in their mouths. Toddlers are naturally inquisitive and can be determined to explore and get into things.
- Older children can be fascinated by them too. In some cases, they may deliberately put one of these batteries in their mouth or on their tongue to experience the sensation of the electrical charge.
How big is the risk?
At least two children a year have died as a result of swallowing lithium coin cell batteries in the UK.
We don’t know how many children are taken to A&E, admitted to hospital or suffer life-changing injuries.
In Australia, an estimated 4 children a week go to A&E with an injury related to a button battery.
How can I keep children safe?
- Keep all spare batteries in a sealed container in a high cupboard
- Keep products well out of children’s reach if the battery compartment isn’t secured
- Put ‘flat’ or ‘dead’ batteries out of children’s reach straight away and recycle them safely
- Avoid toys from markets, discount stores or temporary shops as they may not conform to safety regulations, and take care when buying online or from overseas
- Teach older children that button batteries are dangerous and not to play with them or give them to younger brothers and sisters
What situations have accidents already happened in?
Little exploring fingers have found lithium coin cell batteries when:
- A product is dropped and the battery falls out
- A battery is ‘flat’ and has been taken out and left on a worktop or table
- A packet of batteries is opened and the batteries spill out under the sofa or a cupboard
- Spare batteries are stored in an easy-to-reach drawer in the lounge or kitchen
- The button battery compartment of a toy or other device isn’t secured
There are NO OBVIOUS SYMPTOMS!
Unfortunately it is not obvious when a button battery is stuck in a child’s food pipe. There are no specific symptoms associated with this. The child may:
- cough, gag or drool a lot
- appear to have a stomach upset or a virus
- be sick
- point to their throat or tummy
- have a pain in their tummy, chest or throat
- be tired or lethargic
- be quieter or more clingy than usual or otherwise ‘not themselves’
- lose their appetite or have a reduced appetite
- not want to eat solid food / be unable to eat solid food
But these sorts of symptoms vary. Plus, the symptoms may fluctuate, with the pain increasing and then subsiding.
One thing specific to button battery ingestion is vomiting fresh (bright red) blood. If the child does this then seek immediate medical help.
The lack of clear symptoms is why it is important to be vigilant with ‘flat’ or spare button batteries in the home and the products that contain them.
IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CHILD HAS SWALLOWED A BUTTON BATTERY, ACT FAST!
- Take them straight to the A&E department at your local hospital or call 112 for an ambulance
- Tell the doctor there that you think your child has swallowed a button battery
- If you have the battery packaging or the product powered by the battery, take it with you. This will help the doctor identify the type of battery and make treatment easier
- Do not let your child eat or drink
- Do not make them sick
- Trust your instincts and act fast – do not wait to see if any symptoms develop
Adapted by Kate Ellwood from: www.capt.org.uk/button-batteries (24/06/2019)
Life First provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for medical advice. Life First is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made, or actions taken based on this information. It is strongly advised that you attend a First Aid course to understand what to do in a medical emergency.