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The deadly household object causing our kids harm, in more ways than one

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’re definitely something that should be on your radar. Button batteries, or coin batteries, are small and very powerful. They are used to charge up devices that have a longer shelf-life, like a watch or the key to your car.

It’s estimated that 20 children a week are rushed to emergency departments across Australia because they have swallowed or inserted a button battery. 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.

We’ll help you understand the danger of button batteries, the types of devices they’re found in, and what to do if your child swallows a button battery.

Why are button batteries a health risk?

Button batteries are bright and shiny which makes them very attractive to young children. They pose a serious choking hazard because they are small, round and flat, making them easy for kids to put in their mouths and accidently swallow, or to poke them in an ear or nose.

Button batteries can lead to serious internal burns in as little as two hours. If the battery is swallowed, it can get lodged in the digestive system, causing internal bleeding, and can lead to death.

When the battery gets wet – let’s say from saliva after swallowing it – it causes the electrical current in the battery to become corrosive, meaning it can literally burn a hole through parts of the digestive system, such as the oesophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach), the stomach or the bowel. Even if the battery is used, it still produces enough electricity to cause burns inside the body.

Watch what happens when a button battery is inserted into a pork sausage – imagine this happening inside your child’s body.

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

Where are button batteries used?

Button batteries are generally used in portable devices you’d find around the home. If it’s small, electronic and not rechargeable, it’s very likely it runs off a button battery. These include:

  • watches
  • remote controls
  • car keys
  • children’s toys
  • bathroom and kitchen scales
  • musical greeting cards
  • hearing aids
  • reading lights
  • cameras
  • calculators
  • thermometers.

How can I prevent my child swallowing a button battery?

Only buy safe products

If you’re buying a product that uses button batteries, the battery compartment should be child-proof, either requiring a tool such as screwdriver to open it, or it needs two movements to open it, 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.

Dispose of used button batteries immediately

This is very important because flat batteries still produce enough charge to cause burns when lodged inside the body. If you are recycling your batteries, 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 a button battery if you didn’t see it, and the soft tissue in the oesophagus and gut doesn't register pain very well, so the battery can burn severely without the child noticing.

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 who buy toys for your children, or babysit your kids, are also aware of the dangers.

What to do if my child swallows 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.

Your child may show the following symptoms if they have swallowed a button battery:

  • gagging or choking
  • drooling
  • chest pain (sometimes this causes the child to grunt)
  • coughing or noisy breathing
  • unexplained vomiting or food refusal
  • black or red vomits or bowel motions, which can indicate bleeding from the gut
  • nose bleeds
  • unexplained fever.

If you suspect your child has swallowed a button battery, contact the Poisons Information Centre immediately on 13 11 26. If you’re not able to do that, go straight to a hospital emergency department. Do not let the child eat or drink, and do not try and make them vomit.

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

Other dangerous items found around the home

Anything smaller than a D size battery (that’s the large round one) can be a choking hazard for young children. Things like beads, marbles, eyes off soft toys, coins, jewellery, and paper clips should be kept out of reach of children at all times.

The ACCC has created a downloadable ‘choke check’ tool, which parents can print out to see if an object is a choking hazard. If it can fit through the tool, it’s something a child can choke on. You can download the Choke Check here [PDF 2.27MB].

Fridge magnets pose a similar danger to button batteries when swallowed. If a child swallows more than one magnet, they can stick together in the digestive tract, causing blockages and even holes in the wall of the gut.

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 AmbulanceAustralian Red Cross and First Aid Institute Australia.

Last updated: 18 February 2019