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By Elizabeth Earley
Photographs Courtesy of Colton's Mom Brandy Harwood

Button Batteries a Serious Safety Risk to Kids

Colton Harwood was 10 months old when he was eating Teddy Grahams and Goldfish crackers while he sat on the sofa with his father in the family’s Virginia Beach home in July.

His mother, Brandy Harwood, noticed a strange look on his face like he was trying hard to swallow. Colton has 11 older brothers and sisters in his family, so his parents have plenty of experience in knowing when something is wrong with a kid.

Brandy and her husband, Robert, patted him on the back, thinking maybe he was choking on one of his snacks.

“I knew within a minute we had to go to the ER,” Brandy said.

On the way, his eyes became red and he turned blue for a moment. “I was in panic mode. Something was wrong, something more than a Teddy graham,” says Brandy.

An X-ray showed that he had a button battery lodged in his esophagus, so he was transferred by ambulance to CHKD.  Colton Harwood

What the Harwoods didn’t know at the time is that swallowed batteries can lodge in the esophagus and cause serious burn injuries in just a couple of hours.

In some situations, the batteries pass through the gut with no problems, but because button batteries have become so small, there’s been an increase in cases where children spend days in the hospital after suffering internal burns. Some children have needed to be on feeding tubes, and some have even died.

Dr. Craig Derkay, director of Pediatric Otolaryngology at CHKD, said the hospital has a set protocol for these situations. Once it’s confirmed the battery is lodged in the esophagus, time is of the essence.

Dr. Derkay lives only 10 minutes from the hospital, so he headed in, which is how the battery came to be removed two hours and 20 minutes after Colton put it in his mouth.

Already, there was an acid burn, but Dr. Derkay put in a soft feeding tube and Colton was taken to the pediatric intensive care unit. He spent five days in the hospital.

Soon he was back to his normal self.

His parents believe he must have gotten the battery between sofa cushions, but they have no idea how it got there. Brandy remembers throwing a weight scale away in the trash recently, so it might have come from that.

They did a meticulous search of their house to remove any other batteries, and found some in door and window alarms. Brandy’s been trying to get the word out to families with children, because she doesn’t want them to go through the same thing Colton did.

Signs of Battery Ingestion

  • Airway obstruction or wheezing
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Chest discomfort
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Decreased appetite, refusal to eat
  • Coughing, choking or gagging with eating or drinking

Tips from the National Capital Poison Center

  • Never leave batteries sitting out. Store spare batteries, and batteries to be recycled, out of sight and reach of young children. If recycling is not possible, wrap used batteries securely and discard them where a child can’t find them.
  • Check all household devices to be certain the battery compartment is secured shut. Use strong tape to secure compartments that children can open or that might pop open if the device is dropped. Only purchase products that require a screwdriver or tool to open the battery compartment, or that are closed with a child-resistant locking mechanism. Batteries are everywhere.

Check These Common Household Items that Contain Button Batteries:

  • remote controls
  • garage door openers
  • keyless entry fobs
  • bathroom scales
  • parking transponders
  • toys
  • cameras
  • watches
  • PDAs
  • calculators
  • digital thermometers
  • hearing aids
  • singing greeting cards
  • talking books
  • portable stereos
  • handheld video games
  • cell phones
  • home medical equipment/meters
  • flash and pen lights
  • flashing shoes
  • toothbrushes, bedwetting monitors
  • keychains
  • flashing or lighted jewelry or attire
  • any household item that is powered!

Be especially cautious with any product that contains a battery that is as big as a penny or larger.

  • The 20 mm diameter lithium cell is one of the most serious problems when swallowed.
  • These problem cells can be recognized by their imprint (engraved numbers and letters) and often have one of these 3 codes: CR2032, CR2025, CR2016.
  • If swallowed and not removed promptly, these larger button batteries can cause death - or burn a hole through your child's esophagus.

Don't allow children to play with batteries or with battery powered products that have easily accessible batteries.

Make sure all hearing aids for children have child-resistant battery compartments and make sure the lock is activated when the child is wearing the aid.

  • Alert family members who wear hearing aids to the importance of keeping the batteries out of reach of small children at all times. That can be quite a burden since most hearing aid users remove the batteries from the aids each time they take the aids off.
  • Don't insert or change batteries in front of small children.

Tips for Protecting Older Children and Adults

  • Never put batteries in your mouth, to test, to hold, or for any reason. They are slippery and easily swallowed.
  • Don't mistake batteries for pills. Don't store batteries near pills or in pill bottles. Don’t leave them on bedside tables or place them loose in your pocket or purse. Look at every medicine you intend to swallow.Turn on the lights, put on your glasses, read the label and look at the medicine itself.
  • If you use a hearing aid, these steps are especially important. All too often, the tiny hearing aid batteries are ingested with or instead of medications.
  • Avoid storing or leaving batteries where they might be mistaken for, or swallowed with, food.
  • Don't leave batteries in drinking glasses or adjacent to nuts, candy, popcorn or other finger foods.

What to do if your child has swallowed or placed a button battery in their ear or nose 

  • Call the National Battery Ingestion Hotline at 800-498-8666, immediately. Prompt action is critical. Don't wait for symptoms to develop. If the battery was swallowed, don’t eat or drink until an X-ray shows the battery is beyond the esophagus. Batteries stuck in the esophagus must be removed as quickly as possible as severe damage can occur in two hours. Batteries in the nose or ear also must be removed immediately to avoid permanent damage.

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