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Safety & Prevention

Water Beads: Harmful if Swallowed, Put in Ears

Water-absorbing gel beads sold as sensory toys and used in vases and gardens are a growing problem among young children.

What are water beads?

Made of superabsorbent polymer chemicals, water beads are also known as jelly beads, hydro orbs, crystal soil and gel beads. They are also called sensory beads, used as play tools for children with autism and other developmental conditions. When the tiny, hard plastic balls are placed in water, they can grow up to 1,500 times their size. The clear, colorful beads can then be dried out and reused.

Why water beads can be dangerous for young children

The problem is that because water beads look like candy, young children may be tempted to swallow them. Kids also have put them in their ears, and even inhaled them. The beads can continue to grow once inside the body, causing blockages and life-threatening damage. And the beads may not be visible on X-rays.

Although the beads are labeled as "non-toxic," concerns also have been raised about the safety of the chemical acrylamide used to make them.

Water beads safety tips

If you are interested in buying water beads, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Consider waiting until all the children in your household are at least 3 years old.

  • Only use water beads on a table over a hard floor. Sweep or vacuum immediately afterward. Because some are the size of a pinhead when dry, they are difficult to find or notice if they fall on the floor.

  • Store the water beads in a tightly sealed container. Keep it in a safe place that young children can't reach.

  • Supervise children when using water beads.

Have some water beads been recalled?

Deaths and injuries of children have prompted recalls of water-absorbing balls, beads and toys shaped like fruit and animals. Recently, a recall was issued after one baby died and another was seriously injured from swallowing water beads in an activity kit.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has many reports of children being injured after ingesting water beads. Many cases involve young children under 3 years old swallowing water beads given to their older siblings.

In two CPSC reports, children were treated for ear infections when doctors couldn't spot clear beads in their ears during an exam. The delay in finding the beads allowed them to grow until the kids, who were 5 and 7 years old, needed surgery. Both have ear drum damage, and one hearing loss. Poison Control reported a 6-month-old who needed surgery after swallowing a water bead; the baby later died from an infection.

If you suspect your child swallowed water beads or put them into their ears, seek treatment right away. You can also call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 or get online help.

Signs your child may have swallowed water beads

  • Refusing to eat

  • Lethargy

  • Drooling

  • Vomiting

  • Wheezing

  • Complaints that something is stuck in the throat or chest

  • Abdominal pain

  • Constipation

  • Abdominal swelling and soreness

More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence & Poison Prevention (Copyright © 2023)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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