Parents Unaware of Risks of Tiny Batteries

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Updated: 10/20 11:05 am

Oct. 5, 2009 -- Tiny "button type" batteries found in everything from vibrating teethers to musical touch-and-learn baby books present big dangers to young children, but parents and doctors are sorely undereducated about the topic, research shows. 

A study presented at the world's largest meeting of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) professionals suggests it's common for young kids to ingest miniature disc batteries, either by swallowing them or placing them up their nose. While it's not surprising that children have an oral fixation, researchers say the real news here is that adults don't have a good understanding of the dangers. 

Every year, more than 3,000 people swallow button batteries, says the National Capital Poison Center. Most of them (62%) are kids under age 5, usually toddlers between ages 1 and 2.

Button batteries are tiny, round batteries about the size of a thumbnail or smaller. They are found in hundreds of items, including toys. They are also used to power hearing aids, musical greeting cards, watches, and calculators. 

Eating or inhaling a button battery doesn't always lead to long-term health problems, but it can. Most of the time, the battery passes out of the body through the stool. But in some cases, it can get stuck and cause internal bleeding, tissue burns, a hole in the windpipe, or other serious trouble. This may lead to permanent voice loss or damage that results in the need for a long-term feeding or breathing tube.

Otolaryngologists Dale Amanda Tylor, MD, and Seth Pransky, MD, say the need for an immediate diagnosis and prompt treatment is "crucial" when it comes to preventing long-lasting damage. They believe that parents, caregivers, and doctors need to be much better educated about the dangers of ingesting button batteries. The researchers recommend continuing education for doctors and improved packaging of the batteries.

The team's findings are based on 10 years of pediatric hospital case studies and related literature.

If someone has swallowed a button battery or placed one in the ear ore nose, immediately call the 24-hour National Battery Ingestion Hotline at 202-625-3333 (you can call collect) or the National Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222. The number is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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