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Button batteries – why they’re dangerous and what you can do to keep your kids safe

baby reaching into an open draw on a wooden cabinet
Babies are curious and will often reach for shiny objects, which is why button batteries are a choking hazard.

If you have young kids and you haven’t heard of button batteries, they need to be on your radar. Button batteries are small and very powerful. To kids, they might look like lollies or coins, and can be very easily swallowed or put up a nose or in an ear. Whilst many worry about the choking risk, because of their shape, they are more likely to lodge in the oesophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach). Once inside the body, button batteries can cause serious burns, leading to severe injuries and even death.

What are button batteries and where are they found?

Button batteries, also known as coin batteries, are used to charge devices that have a longer shelf-life, like a watch or the key to your car. They’re small, flat and round. You can see a picture of the different types of button batteries below.

Button batteries are generally used in portable devices you’d find around the home. If it’s small, electronic, doesn’t plug into the wall, it probably uses a button battery. Examples of common household objects that might use button batteries are:

  • children’s toys
  • flashing novelties (e.g. flameless candles)
  • remote controls
  • thermometers
  • car keys
  • watches
  • calculators
  • scales
  • musical greeting cards
  • glucometers
  • hearing aids
  • reading lights
  • cameras.

four button batteries in a pile, with two of them showing corrosion

Why are button batteries a health risk?

If you’ve ever spent time with a toddler or young child, you’ll know that the battle to keep objects out of their mouth never ends. Button batteries are bright and shiny which makes them very attractive to young children. It’s very easy for kids to put button batteries in their mouths and accidently swallow them, or to poke them in an ear or nose, even under an eyelid!

When button batteries get wet – for example, from saliva after swallowing it –the electrical current in the battery breaks down the water to form a corrosive product that is just like oven cleaner. It can literally burn a hole through parts of the digestive system, such as the oesophagus or wherever it has been inserted. Even if the battery is old or flat, it can still produce enough electricity to cause burns inside the body.

Button batteries can lead to serious internal burns in as little as two hours. If a battery is swallowed, it can get lodged in the oesophagus and the burn can extend through to major blood vessels, causing internal bleeding. Not convinced how dangerous button batteries can be? Watch what happens when a button battery is inserted into a pork sausage – this is what can happen inside a child’s body.

Despite the health risks for young kids, button batteries are still used because they are a consistent and reliable source of power for portable electronics. It’s estimated that many children each week are rushed to emergency departments across Australia because they have swallowed a button battery or put one into their body and one child a month suffers a severe complication, requiring ongoing medical care.

How can I prevent my child swallowing a button battery?

Only buy safe products

Do you really need that product that runs on button batteries?

There are many products in your home that run on button batteries (like your electronic car keys). But reducing the number of products that use them reduces the opportunity for young children to access one.

You can choose electronic products powered by larger batteries that are harder to swallow. Or products with sealed button battery compartments that are rechargeable via a USB cable.

If you’re buying a product that uses button batteries, make sure they’re safe:

  • Only buy products with battery compartments that are secured with a child-resistant locking mechanism that:
    • require a tool such as screwdriver to open the battery compartment
    • or need two simultaneous independent movements to open the battery compartment, such as pressing a button and sliding back the compartment at the same time.

Only buy robust products where the battery can’t come loose if the item is dropped or broken apart. Currently in Australia, there is a voluntary industry code to address the risk of button battery access; the only products that are required to have child resistant button battery compartments are toys designed for children under the age of 36 months.

If you find products that you think release batteries too easily (flip or slide operated battery compartment, break apart when dropped), you can report them to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Button battery consumer products that have been recalled can be found on the Product Safety Australia website.

Throw away used button batteries immediately

Flat button batteries can still produce enough charge to cause burns when lodged inside the body. You can put your batteries in the bin if you have made sure it is secure and your child cannot get into it. Some councils offer battery recycling programs. If you are recycling your batteries, cover the flat surfaces with tape to avoid pole to pole contact and keep them in a secure container well out of reach of children.

Watch your child if they’re playing with a toy that uses button batteries

It can be hard to know if your child has swallowed or inserted a button battery if you didn’t see it. Sometimes parents report hearing a gag and cough as the battery goes down. Parents also report noticing that the battery is missing or that the product doesn’t work. You may think that an internal burn would be very painful. The soft tissue in the oesophagus and gut doesn't register pain very well, so the battery can burn severely without the child noticing. This means that unless you see the button battery go down, you might not know they’ve swallowed it until damage has been done.

Tell others of the danger

Word of mouth is a powerful tool among friends and family, so share this important information as often as possible, and help other parents understand the danger of button batteries. Ensure the people in your lives are also aware of the dangers.

baby sleeping on its side next to a teddy bear with the bear's eye in it's hand

What to do if my child swallows/inserts a button battery?

It can take as little as two hours to cause severe burns once a button battery has been ingested and remains lodged in the body, so you need to act quickly.

If you think your child might have swallowed or inserted a button battery, contact the Poisons Information Centre immediately on 13 11 26 for fast expert advice, 24/7.

Poisons Centre staff are pharmacists who are trained for emergency poisoning situations and can coordinate care with treating hospitals as needed.

Do not let the child eat or drink, and do not try and make them vomit.

Symptoms from an ingested button battery are not immediately noticeable and can be very non-specific but look out for sudden onset of symptoms.

The following symptoms may occur after swallowing a button battery:

  • coughing or noisy breathing
  • chest pain or grunting
  • drooling or vomiting
  • gagging or choking
  • bleeding or discharge
  • unexplained food refusal, fever or vomiting
  • nose bleeds: sometimes this can be blood vomited through the nose
  • bleeding from the gut: black or red vomits or bowel motions.

What do I do if my child is choking?

Raising Children has instructions on providing first aid for choking infants and children, with pictures demonstrating each step. You can also download and print this guide by St John Ambulance Australia, and stick it somewhere handy like on the fridge.

If you think a young child is choking, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance, and stay on the phone with the operator while following the first aid steps. If an older child is choking, encourage them to cough to see if it dislodges the object. If it doesn’t, follow the first aid steps, calling for an ambulance if choking continues.

There’s no substitute for learning in-person first aid. Parents and carers can access first aid training through a number of providers, including Queensland Ambulance ServiceSt John Ambulance and Australian Red Cross.

More information

You can find more information about button batteries on the Queensland Government button batteries page.

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Last updated: 19 December 2019