My child has swallowed a battery: What should I do?
They’re bright and shiny, you can roll and spin them around and they fit in your mouth. Batteries – and especially button cell batteries – are attractive toys for young children. But how can you prevent a disaster from happening? And what if you suspect that your child has swallowed a battery? Should you race to Accident & Emergency, or wait for the next trip to the toilet to give you answers?
“We get 200 calls a year about battery-related accidents,” says Dr Martine Mostin of the Poison Centre. “They’re not always about batteries being swallowed; we also get a lot of calls about incidents where leaking batteries came into contact with the skin. In the first half of 2018, we recorded 100 accidents – of which 54 involved children, 32 involved adults and 14 involved dogs. Thirty-eight of those accidents involved someone swallowing a button cell battery (29 children, 7 adults and 2 dogs).”
Swallowed a battery? Here’s what you should do
- Don't let your child eat or drink anything else. Vomiting or giving them activated (medicinal) charcoal won’t help.
- If you have even the slightest suspicion that your child has swallowed a battery, go immediately to Accident & Emergency. After an initial examination, the emergency doctor will order an X-ray of the chest and abdomen straight away – even if your child has no complaints.
- If the battery is lodged in the oesophagus, a doctor will immediately remove it using an endoscope. If a battery gets stuck in the oesophagus it can be life threatening; it can cause a hole in the oesophagus within just 2 hours.
- If the battery has already made its way to the stomach, it’s a case of waiting for it to come out in a bowel movement (usually after four days). If the diameter of the battery is greater than 23 millimetres, it is removed endoscopically. If, in the days after swallowing a battery, your child refuses to eat, has difficulty swallowing, vomits, has stomach ache or black bowel movements, further tests are necessary.
- Has the battery not left the body naturally after more than 4 days? Then the doctor will take a second X-ray. The longer the battery stays in the stomach, the greater the chance that the battery will open due to the gastric acid. If the battery is still in the stomach, it will be removed endoscopically. If not, the doctor will prescribe a high-fibre diet, a laxative or a combination of both.
‘‘Children love to experiment. They see batteries as the perfect toy, a great material for arts and crafts, or even a lollipop or sweet.
What are the chances of something going seriously wrong?
In most cases, no treatment is required. Only very rarely do batteries get stuck in the stomach or intestines. But fewer than 10% of people who swallow batteries suffer any problems, and fewer than 1% have serious complaints. In the last 10 years, however, doctors have seen an increase in the number of serious injuries. This is because lithium batteries are larger (more than 2 cm in diameter) and are more likely to get lodged in the oesophagus.
Once the battery reaches the intestines, the likelihood of it opening is small, because the acidity in the intestines is fairly neutral. To date, there have been no cases of poisoning from heavy metals, although small amounts of lithium or mercury can end up in your body.
If your child suffers blood loss, has stomach ache, vomits, refuses to eat and has a fever, and the doctor is unable to reach the battery endoscopically, it will have to be removed surgically.
In the nose or in the ear?
Children love to experiment. They see batteries as the perfect toy, a great material for arts and crafts, or even a lollipop or sweet. Children often put (button cell) batteries in their nose or ear.
A battery in your body can also cause damage to your tissue if it leaks or comes under pressure. It is therefore important to remove them from the ear or nose as soon as possible. Not sure? Contact a doctor as soon as possible, preferably an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Tips to prevent accidents
- Keep all batteries in one place; this is for the safety of both children and adults. Older people in particular may confuse their hearing aid batteries with their medication and accidentally swallow a button cell battery.
- Buy batteries in blister packs: they are more difficult for children to open.
- Take used batteries straight to a Bebat collection point.
- When buying toys or household devices, make sure that the battery compartment can only be opened with a screwdriver or coin.
- Do not change batteries in the presence of children.
- Do not allow children to play with batteries.
- Never put a battery in your mouth to ‘hold it’ while replacing a battery.
Questions? If in doubt, contact the Poison Centre at www.antigifcentrum.be or call the emergency number: 070 245 245.