When a doctor in the Netherlands tweeted this stark X-ray shot of a “button” or “disk” battery lodged in a child’s esophagus, people took notice. Her post has been retweeted more than 8,000 times since early January.
“Removed 3 disc batteries only this week, stuck in esophagus of babies and toddlers,” Lissy de Ridder, MD, PhD, wrote in her message accompanying the photo. “Damage is severe and lifelong in one of them. Truly individual and societal disaster. Parents, be warned!”
The esophagus is the muscular tube that connects your throat to your stomach. A small, candy-shaped button battery can melt through it in as little as 2 hours after a toddler swallows one.
It’s a life-threatening, “drop-everything emergency,” says Diane Calello, MD, medical director of the New Jersey Poison Information & Education System.
She remembers the case of a 3-year-old girl who swallowed a button battery from her light-up tiara. ER doctors saved her life, but she ended up with a scarred esophagus.
“I don’t think people realize that [these batteries] are among us in plain sight in children’s environments,” Calello says.
They power a number of things that kids under 5 years old can get their hands on, including some toys, games, singing greeting cards, and remote controls, according to the American Poison Centers Association of America.
“If you know that there is something [your] child plays with that has that battery in it, I honestly think you should get rid of it because it’s just too dangerous,” says Calello, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
She says button batteries are more of a hazard than ever. That’s because developers began making bigger, more powerful types a few years ago. A 20-millimeter, 3-volt button battery “carries a lot more current and is more likely to get stuck in a child’s esophagus,” she says.
“And then what’s behind the esophagus are all major blood vessels.”
Every Second Counts
If you see your child swallow a button battery or even suspect they may have, take them to the emergency room right away.
Your little one may have symptoms like vomiting, belly pain, trouble breathing, or burning throat pain. One outward warning sign of trouble is a device or toy that’s missing a battery.
Doctors typically try to remove the battery with a flexible tube called an endoscope, which goes through the mouth and down the throat, Calello says.
But if the battery has begun to break down, your child may need complex surgeries to repair the damage. One little boy named Emmett underwent 10 follow-up operations, including one to replace his esophagus. His family started a nonprofit called Emmett’s Fight to raise awareness about the dangers of button batteries.
How to Stay Safe
Emmett was only 12 months old when he swallowed a battery that had fallen out of a remote control. To keep your own little ones safe, wrap tape around the battery compartments of such devices. Place them somewhere out of a baby's or toddler's reach, too.
And if you have packages of button batteries, “store them as up and away and out of sight as you would a poisonous, dangerous chemical,” Calello says.
When you’re done using the batteries, get them out of your home right away, says WebMD pediatrician and senior medical editor Hansa Bhargava, MD. Don’t throw them in the trash, though. Search online for local battery drop-off bins, recycling centers, or collection services.
She says anything small and round is exciting to little ones, and they’ll be tempted to swallow it. So keep magnets and laundry detergent pods far away from little hands, too.
Share these safety tips with anyone who takes care of your child, like friends, neighbors, and grandparents. “A lot of the accidents happen at someone else’s house, inadvertently,” Bhargava says.
For more information and advice, call the national Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222. You can also text POISON to 797979 to make poison control a contact in your phone.