Button batteries are small (less than one centimeter in diameter) batteries usually used to power wrist watches and small clocks. Children often accidentally inhale or swallow them due to their size and availability.
These batteries can potentially cause necrosis (breakdown) of tissues in the GI tract, depending on where they become lodged. The substance in the battery does not necessarily cause any systemic toxicity, but they can cause life-threatening perforations (holes) in the esophagus (food pipe).
These small batteries can be found in:
Inhaled batteries may cause cough, respiratory distress, or even complete respiratory failure. If the aspiration is undetected, it may manifest later as a pneumonia.
Swallowed batteries may cause no symptoms at all, but if they become lodged in the esophagus or stomach, they may cause chest pain, abdominal pain, vomiting, vomiting blood, severe cardiovascular collapse due to esophageal perforation, or death.
Seek emergency medical care immediately. Do NOT induce vomiting. If the material from open or leaking battery gets on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes. If swallowed, drink water or milk IMMEDIATELY. If the patient is vomiting, continue giving water or milk.
Before Calling Emergency
Determine the following information:
- the patient’s age, weight, and condition
- the name of the product (ingredients and strengths if known)
- the time it was swallowed
- the amount swallowed
Poison Control, or a local emergency number
See Poison Control centers for telephone numbers and addresses. Take the container with you to the emergency room.
What to expect at the emergency room
Some or all of the following procedures may be performed.
- If the battery has been inhaled and is causing life-threatening airway obstruction, it will either have to be removed in the ER by direct laryngoscopy, or removed immediately by surgery.
- If the battery has been inhaled into the lungs, it will have to be removed immediately with a bronchoscope.
- An X-ray will be taken to locate the battery.
- If the battery is swallowed, it may have to be removed physically (with an endoscope) if it is still in the esophagus or stomach.
- If the battery has passed through the stomach into the small intestine, the usual treatment is to check another X-ray in 1 to 2 days to make sure the battery is moving along the GI tract. The battery should then be followed by periodic X-rays until it passes in the stool. If any symptoms develop, it may indicate that the battery has moved back up into the stomach and will have to be removed with an endoscope.
The outcome depends entirely upon whether it is inhaled and causes respiratory compromise, or if it is swallowed and causes esophageal or stomach perforation. Any of those situations are immediately life-threatening, and survival depends on the time to treatment and the success of emergency treatment.
Most swallowed batteries, however, do pass through the GI tract without causing any serious damage.
by Harutyun Medina, M.D.
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.