Little children swallow a lot of things that they shouldn’t. Usually it scares their parents but is ultimately harmless. One exception that parents and caregivers need to know about: swallowing a button battery presents a true medical emergency. And failure of emergency room staff to recognize the problem and move quickly can cause permanent harm or even death to a child. This could present a particularly tragic case of medical malpractice.
While rare, a death was reported in one child where the battery burned through the esophagus and attacked the aorta. Another child was left with a lifelong whisper from vocal cord damage. Another had to have feeding tubes and multiple surgeries for the damage to the gastric tract.
The lead author of an article on this subject in the medical journal Pediatrics, Dr. Litovitz, says there is a “tight timeline” in which to rescue children from the injuries caused by lithium ingestion: while the batteries start causing severe damages as quickly as within 2 hours of ingestion, the problem is difficult to be diagnosed because small children cannot verbally communicate, and their symptoms (which can be loss of appetite, vomiting, coughing up blood) are nonspecific.
If button battery swallowing is suspected, the patient needs an x-ray to locate the button and then endoscopy to find and retrieve it.
Another issue is manufacturers making it too easy for kids to get access to these tiny batteries. Pediatricians and parents are working to raise awareness of the dangers of small lithium batteries and to urge manufacturers of electronics to secure the battery in all electronic devices, not just toys.
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