In 2014, approximately 3,500 adults and children across the United States reported an exposure with button batteries to state poison centers. Button batteries are found in many products including toys, greeting cards, watches, hearing aids, games, and flashing jewelry – all products in the average American household during the holidays. While the majority of button batteries pass safely from the esophagus into the stomach, the lodging of a button battery in the esophagus can have serious and life threatening effects.
If lodged in the esophagus, patients often complain of chest pain or tightness, coughing, foreign body sensation, or in more serious cases bloody emesis. Children have died as recently as 2015 from hemorrhagic shock associated with burns from button batteries lodged in the esophagus. The batteries carry life-threatening risk as they burn through tissue and major blood vessels in the neck. Once in the stomach or intestines, the button batteries pass safely through the adult or child. The human body is a conductor and when in the esophagus, form a closed circuit. The battery will produce electric current that begins to burn the tissue. Experiments with hotdogs and button batteries demonstrate life-threatening burns within three hours of contact. (See figure below)
If there is concern that a child or adult may have swallowed a button battery, an x-ray is recommended as soon as possible. The battery will be visualized on x-ray and medical decisions can easily be made to either remove the button battery through endoscopy or if in the stomach or intestines, allow the battery to pass. Quick visualization is very important to the appropriate treatment and prevention of life-threatening effects associated with button batteries. During the holidays, we all feel stressed and busy, but if a button battery ingestion is even suspected quick medical evaluation should be a priority.
This question prepared by: Nena Bowman, PharmD, DABAT, CSPI (Certified Specialist in Poison Information) Tennessee Poison Center
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Donna Seger, MD
Tennessee Poison Center
Poison Help Hotline: 1-800-222-1222