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Question

How can I protect my child from the dangers of lithium coin and button batteries?

Christine Pagano, MD, FAAP

Answer

The best way to protect kids from the serious injury caused by these kinds of batteries is by treating them the same way you would when you treat other potentially deadly items in your home, like cleaning products, kitchen knives or medications. Lock them up or limit your child's access to them as much as possible.

My toddler tries to put things in their mouth all the time. Why worry about small batteries in particular?

Little kids often explore their worlds by putting things in their mouth, ears or noses. As a pediatrician, I've removed things like craft beads, pencil erasers, popcorn kernels, and plastic toy bricks from kids' noses and ears. I've answered calls from parents about kids swallowing things like paper clips, rocks and even small acorns. But small batteries are very different. Why?

When a battery comes in contact with a body fluid like saliva, it generates an electric current. That electric current can quickly burn tissues inside the body. In just 2 hours, lithium coin batteries can cause lifelong injury due to severe burns to the lining of the throat, esophagus, stomach, nose or ear. Nearby structures like the windpipe, lungs and large blood vessels can also be damaged. Even "dead" batteries that can no longer power a device can still cause serious trauma to children's bodies.

Is this a growing problem?

Unfortunately, yes. In recent years, more kids have needed to go to emergency departments because they swallowed a small battery. There were more than twice the number of pediatric battery-related visits to the emergency room in 2010-2019 than there were in the previous decade. Most patients were ages 5 or younger. Many children were able to go home after treatment, but 12% needed to be hospitalized and over 40 children have died from button battery injury since 2010.

Where are little kids finding these small batteries?

Small batteries can be found in every room of the home. They are in things like:

  • Remote controls

  • Kitchen scales and bathroom scales

  • Hearing aids

  • Car key fobs and key finders

  • Digital thermometers

  • Kids' toys, such as robots, light-up yo-yos, and flashing wands

  • Kids clothes like light-up sneakers or flashing necklaces

  • Fitness trackers and watches

  • Gaming headsets and video game controllers

  • Home security system door and window sensors

  • Calculators

  • Musical greeting cards

  • Flameless candles

  • Holiday ornaments and battery-powered string lights

  • Science experiments/STEM kits

How can I prevent my child from getting access to small batteries?

  1. Make sure battery compartments are secure. Soon, it will be required for new electronic devices to have battery compartments that are harder for kids to get into by requiring a screw to open, for example. But for now, common existing household items, like remote controls, may have battery compartments that open easily with a twist or break open when thrown. Consider taping battery compartments shut to be extra safe.

  2. Store items safely. Store small battery-powered items the way you store your cleaning products and medications: out of reach and out of sight. For example, keep the remote control on a high shelf rather than the coffee table. Hang key fobs on high hooks. Put the electronic thermometer away in the medicine cabinet after use. Keep spare batteries on a high shelf in a secured box.

  3. Get rid of old batteries right away. Even "dead" batteries can create an electrical current inside the body and cause burns. When changing the battery in a hearing aid, for example, be sure to wrap the old battery in paper or plastic tape. Taping the used batteries decreases the fire risk and helps prevent your child from swallowing them.

Additional safeguards for small batteries

In addition to the above safety steps, you can look for products with safeguards that may help reduce the risk of lithium coin or button battery ingestion: child-safe packaging that requires scissors to open, for example, and battery compartments that have a screw or require two independent motions at the same time to access the battery. Some lithium coin batteries now have a bitter coating, intended as an additional line of defense to help prevent a child from swallowing them. But keep in mind that the coating will not prevent injury if swallowed anyway.

What should I do if I think my child swallowed a battery (or I'm not sure)?

Trust your parental instinct. If you saw a loose battery on the table and you can't find it a few minutes later, that is enough of a suspicion. You may not hear any choking or coughing, and the child may feel fine at first. But the most important thing to do in this moment, is to get your child to the emergency room immediately. There, if an x-ray confirms that a small battery is stuck inside the body, doctors can take steps to remove it right away.

Let's go back to childproofing.

As babies start to crawl and take their first steps, pediatricians recommend parents childproof their homes. Baby gates can prevent falls down staircases. Cabinet locks can prevent contact with dangerous chemicals. Outlet covers can prevent electrical injury.

Preventing kids' access to small batteries is just as important. It is a tough job, for sure, because lithium coin and button batteries are in so many items in our homes these days. Awareness of their locations and vigilance about their storage and disposal are the key measures parents should take to protect their children from serious harm or injury.

More information

Christine Pagano, MD, FAAP

Dr. Christine Pagano MD, FAAP​ practices primary care at a community health center in Northern New Jersey where she dedicates herself to communicating effectively with families about childhood risk and prevention. She has a special interest in early developmental and social-emotional health, and she is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Early Childhood.

Last Updated
11/4/2022
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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