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Tiny, shiny and dangerous - button batteries

A cute toddler with a TV remote control
Button batteries power many common devices

Button batteries are tiny, shiny and, unfortunately, a dangerous enticement to kids.

But why are they so dangerous and what happens if they are swallowed or get in a child’s nose or ear?

Why are button batteries dangerous?

Button batteries can cause catastrophic injuries.

If swallowed or inserted, button batteries can become stuck in the oesophagus (food pipe) or in the ear or nose, causing a choking hazard, localised chemical burns or both.

A residual charge (even in dead batteries) causes breakdown of water in the body to sodium hydroxide, a highly caustic chemical identical to oven cleaner.

This chemical can burn through parts of a child’s digestive system in as little as two hours, extending into nearby major blood vessels, causing internal bleeding and potentially death.

Lithium batteries, with a 10-year shelf life, are the most powerful and dangerous, even when ‘flat’, but lower-voltage batteries can also cause burns.

It is estimated that approximately 1,000 children are rushed to Australian emergency departments each year, because they have ingested or inserted button batteries. One child per month sustains a severe injury. Most children affected are younger than five years old.

Toowoomba Hospital Paediatrics Principal House Officer Dr Nathan Wedding has witnessed first-hand the dangers of button batteries when he treated a toddler who had swallowed a number of them.

“The child was distressed but there was no evidence of pain,” Dr Wedding says.

“That’s because the parents realised what had happened and took action right away.”

The child was flown to Queensland Children’s Hospital. She suffered internal burns but, fortunately, escaped major injury.

How long does it take for a button battery to cause damage?

As the video shows, a button battery starts to singe the immediate area within minutes. After around 30 minutes, the contact area is bubbling – it’s literally cooking.

It takes about an hour for the battery to blacken the raw flesh, burning into the meat. In two hours, the battery has burnt a hole in the meat.

How do I know if my child has swallowed a button battery?

In many cases, a child who ingests a button battery will be too young to be able to communicate what has happened. Older children might be too afraid to tell someone what they have done.

They may alert their parents or carer to any discomfort or pain they are feeling however symptoms may not be immediately obvious. Because soft tissue in the oesophagus and gut does not easily detect pain, the child may be unaware of the damage the battery is causing. By the time symptoms appear, severe injury may have occurred.

If your child shows any of the following symptoms, they may have swallowed something they shouldn’t have:

  • gagging or choking
  • drooling
  • chest pain (this may present as grunting)
  • coughing or noisy breathing
  • unexplained vomiting or food refusal
  • bleeding from the gut — black or red vomit or bowel motions
  • nose bleeds — sometimes this can be blood vomited through the nose
  • unexplained fever
  • abdominal pain
  • general discomfort
  • spitting blood or blood-stained saliva.

What should I do if I suspect my child has ingested a button battery?

You should act immediately, even at the slightest suspicion they have swallowed a battery. Do not wait for symptoms to develop.

If your child has difficulty breathing, call 000.

If they are breathing normally, call the Queensland Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26. The centre is staffed by pharmacists trained to deal with emergencies. They will direct you to an emergency department best suited to treating your child.

Do not try to make your child vomit. This can cause trauma in the throat.

You should not let your child eat or drink while you await medical advice.

It is likely your child will undergo an x-ray. That is the only way to tell if they have swallowed a button battery.

A selection of different sized button batteries

How do I reduce the risk of my child swallowing a button battery?

  • Reduce: Removing as many button batteries from your household as possible is the safest measure to protect your child.

“They are in so many things now and hard to avoid but it’s important to keep the dangers of button batteries in mind when Christmas shopping this year,” Dr Wedding says.

“Consider alternatives, like toys powered by larger batteries or products with sealed battery compartments that are rechargeable via a USB cable.”

  • Restrict access: If you do need to have devices with button batteries, know where they are at all times and keep them out of reach of children, at least 1.5m off the ground.

Their battery compartments should be secured with a screw or other child-resistant locking mechanism. Consider using strong tape if the compartment needs to be reinforced. Scrutinise the device’s durability – if it looks easy to break, get rid of it.

“If you buy replacement button batteries, get the ones that are packaged properly,” Dr Wedding says. Some of the cheaper options are poorly secured and can be easily torn open by a child.”

  • Recycle or Dispose: When the batteries are flat remove them from the product and apply sticky tape to both sides of the battery. This will make it a much less attractive mouthful.  Dispose of the battery immediately and safely. If you have access to a battery recycler, place the taped battery in a secure location before transport to your recycler.

The recycling system is still being developed for button batteries so watch this space for a child-resistant button battery recycling container.

A graphic showing different types of devices that may be powered by button batteries

If they are so dangerous, why are they available?

Button batteries are a reliable source of power and are used to charge electronic products with longer shelf lives.

They are found in everyday items around the home like toys, garage and TV remote controls, car keys, scales, lights, watches and calculators. They also power medical devices like digital thermometers, hearing aids, heart rate monitors and glucometers.

Their advantages – their compact size, high capacity and power – are what makes them so dangerous.

While it is unlikely that we will be able to do without button batteries, measures are about to be implemented to make button batteries less accessible, particularly to children younger than five years old.

More information

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Last updated: 8 December 2020