A child’s curiosity can be both a blessing and a curse. Anyone with small children knows that they have a knack for getting into places they aren’t supposed to, picking up things that they shouldn’t be touching, and trying to put things into their mouths that shouldn’t be there.
This is all part of how children find out about the world around them – through a process of trial and error, using touch, smell and taste, they get to learn what poses a threat and what doesn’t. Most of the time, when a child swallows something they shouldn’t – as long as it’s fairly small – it passes through in the normal course of things and doesn’t cause any long-lasting damage.
Button batteries, however, are a different matter. These types of battery – also sometimes known as button cells – are used in a variety of everyday electrical items around the home, from watches to remote controls, key fobs, nightlights, toys and novelty gifts. When they come into contact with saliva in the human body, a reaction takes place that releases caustic soda – the same chemical used to unblock drains – which burns through soft tissue.
As soon as a child swallows a button battery, there is an immediate danger that every second of delay can result in damage to their internal organs, and in the most extreme cases, even death.
Last year an investigation into the dangers of button batteries was launched by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) following the death of a three-year old child who swallowed a 23mm coin cell battery. The case highlighted the significant risk to children aged under five, especially if powerful lithium coin cell batteries are swallowed.
You can see the effects of what happens when a button battery is swallowed for yourself by conducting a simple experiment with a slice of meat. Put a button battery on top of the meat and sprinkle on a few drops of water. After just half an hour, the electrochemical reaction will have burned away a large part of the meat, and eventually it will burn all the way through. Now imagine that the meat is the soft tissue inside a child’s throat, and you will have some idea how deadly these small, seemingly harmless devices can be.
Button batteries above 20mm in diameter pose a particular threat, as they are more likely to become lodged in a child’s throat. But even if a child puts a button battery up their nose, the risks of burns, internal bleeding and long-lasting tissue damage are the same.
Katrina Phillips, Chief Executive of the Child Accident Prevention Trust, says: “We rely on button/coin cell batteries to power so many things in our homes, from remote controls to key finders. But few of us know about the dangers they pose to small children. What parent would think that something the size of a 5p piece could cause life-changing injuries or even death, if it gets stuck in their child’s food pipe?”
Professor Derek Burke, a consultant in paediatric medicine, says: “Treatment and management of children under five, even when a button battery is suspected or known [to have been swallowed] is a major challenge for frontline clinicians. This is made even harder when unknown due to the nature of symptoms and other conditions that need to be considered.”
Avoiding the risk
There are some simple steps you can follow to help protect children from the risks posed by button batteries.
- Store spare batteries securely and out of children’s reach. Don’t leave them loose in drawers or on surfaces. Be careful when opening multi-packs of button batteries in case they fall on the floor.
- Know which toys and gadgets use button batteries. This includes everyday items such as: robot bug or fish toys, fidget spinners with LED lights, slim remote controls, car key fobs, calculators, scales, gaming headsets, watches, hearing aids, nightlights and novelty items like singing santas.
- Check your home for things powered by button batteries. If the battery compartment isn’t secured by a screw, move the item out of reach of small children. If it’s faulty, get it fixed or get rid of it safely. You can also report faulty toys to your local Trading Standards.
- Teach older children why button batteries are dangerous and why they shouldn’t give them to young children.
- Get rid of dead button batteries immediately. Children often find discarded button batteries lying around or under sofa cushions. ‘Dead’ button batteries can still have enough power to badly hurt a small child. When you remove one, store it securely and recycle it properly.
It is not always possible to tell whether a child has swallowed a button battery – especially when the child is too young to tell you what’s wrong. The warning signs you should look out for if you suspect they might have swallowed a battery include coughing, gagging, drooling or being sick; appearing to have an upset stomach or pointing to their stomach or throat, being tired, lethargic or out of sorts; and losing their appetite or not wanting to eat food. One more obvious symptom is the child vomiting blood.
If you suspect a child has swallowed a button battery, do not give them anything to eat or drink, and do not try to make them be sick. You should immediately take the child to the nearest A&E department or call an ambulance. Even if you aren’t 100% sure that the child has swallowed a battery, it is always better to err on the side of caution. You should immediately tell medical staff what you suspect the problem is, and if the battery’s packaging is lying around, bring it to the hospital with you so medical staff can decide on the best treatment.
Above all, it is important to trust your instincts and act fast, instead of waiting to see whether symptoms develop. Because the chemical reaction that happens when a battery is swallowed begins almost immediately, every second of delay can result in additional injury.