Dr. Neha Patel, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Northwell Health, says kids can easilly swallow button batteries, especially during the holiday season. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

They make greeting cards sing, toys dance and lights flash. And there’s a good chance many of your holiday gifts and decorations have them.

They are so-called “button” batteries — shiny, coin-sized sources of power that are causing a rising number of injuries among young children who swallow them.

“Kids love to explore. They love to put things in their mouth,” said Dr. Neha Patel, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park.

Patel has been working to raise awareness of the potential dangers associated with button batteries, something she said people should think about, especially during the holiday season as they select presents for young children.

As a head and neck specialist, Patel has removed countless items from children’s ears, noses and throats, ranging from chunks of food to pushpins and beads. She is especially concerned about the growing number of button batteries ingested by children, mostly under age 5.

“If they swallow it and it gets stuck right here at their esophagus,” Patel said, pointing to her neck, “it can actually set off a series of events that can cause permanent damage.”

Across the United States, there were more than 7,000 battery-related emergency department visits a year for children 18 years and younger between 2010 and 2019, according to a report published in August. That is more than twice the number reported from 1990 to 2009.

That report appeared in Pediatrics, a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Researchers also found the emergency department visit rate was highest among children ages 5 and younger. The age group with the highest number of battery-related visits was 1-year-olds.

Patel said a child who swallows a button battery should be brought to the emergency room immediately. The batteries actually can generate a current caused by an electrochemical reaction when it mixes with saliva inside the body.

“The burn caused by a battery can cause a hole in the trachea or esophagus,” she said.

She displayed images of the damage to the tissue in one young patient's throat after swallowing a button battery.

"It looks like a bomb went off in this child’s throat," she said.

The death of a Texas toddler, who suffered grave injuries after ingesting a button battery in 2020, sparked a law signed earlier this year by President Joe Biden.

Reese’s Law, named for Reese Hamsmith, requires the Consumer Product Safety Commission to establish product safety standards for batteries that pose an ingestion hazard such as button cell or coin batteries, including a warning label instructing consumers to keep the batteries out of the reach of children. 

Elmitas Jean of Westbury was shocked and terrified when she found out last year her toddler daughter, Atarah, had swallowed a button battery. She knew something was wrong when the 3-year-old stopped eating but wasn’t complaining about any pain.

An X-ray showed the battery in her throat.

“I just started crying because I could not imagine what she was going through,” Jean said.

Atarah needed several follow-up visits to help repair the damage and swelling to her esophagus. To complicate matters, she had some pre-existing issues with her throat that had been discovered when she was a few months old.

She is doing better but still receiving treatment, said Jean, who hopes her daughter’s story will help raise awareness of the dangers of ingested button batteries.

Patel said parents need to keep the batteries in a safe place, away from children. If an item, such as a toy, contains the batteries, parents should make sure they are firmly secured in that item and not accessible to children.

On the wall of her New Hyde Park office, Patel keeps many of the items she and her colleagues have removed from the throats of children. They serve as a teaching tool and a reminder of how even the most benign items can cause a hazard for young children.

There are pushpins, tiny chicken bones, colorful beads and minuscule pieces of popcorn.

In addition, many common food items, such as pieces of steak and hot dogs, often become stuck in a young child’s throat if they are not cut into very small pieces.

“Kids younger than age 4 are at higher risk for aspirating certain items,” Patel said. “They don't have protective chewing and swallowing mechanisms. They like to run around while they are eating, and they are more likely to choke.”

If the item is lodged in the child’s vocal folds, or voice box, it can be a life-threatening emergency, she said.

Some signs that a child may have swallowed a foreign object, such as a button battery, are drooling, noisy breathing and refusing to eat or drink, Patel said.

If the child is over the age of 1 and swallowed the battery within the most recent 12 hours, parents can give them two teaspoons of honey every 10 minutes as they travel to the emergency room. That effort may coat the battery and decrease the incidence of burns.

Patel said she and her colleagues are conducting a study to compare battery ingestion visits to Cohen’s emergency room in current years with the past decade.

She’s also working with the departments of pediatrics, gastroenterology, emergency medicine and the operative nursing teams on improved protocols to make sure children who may have ingested batteries or other foreign bodies are seen immediately instead of sitting in waiting rooms.

“Time is of the essence,” Patel said.

They make greeting cards sing, toys dance and lights flash. And there’s a good chance many of your holiday gifts and decorations have them.

They are so-called “button” batteries — shiny, coin-sized sources of power that are causing a rising number of injuries among young children who swallow them.

“Kids love to explore. They love to put things in their mouth,” said Dr. Neha Patel, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park.

Patel has been working to raise awareness of the potential dangers associated with button batteries, something she said people should think about, especially during the holiday season as they select presents for young children.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Doctors are seeing more cases of young children swallowing button batteries, which can cause severe injuries or even death.
  • During the holiday season, access to these batteries, which power toys and many electronics, should be carefully monitored and kept secure from children.
  • If you think your child has swallowed a button battery, take them to the emergency room immediately, doctors said.

As a head and neck specialist, Patel has removed countless items from children’s ears, noses and throats, ranging from chunks of food to pushpins and beads. She is especially concerned about the growing number of button batteries ingested by children, mostly under age 5.

“If they swallow it and it gets stuck right here at their esophagus,” Patel said, pointing to her neck, “it can actually set off a series of events that can cause permanent damage.”

Across the United States, there were more than 7,000 battery-related emergency department visits a year for children 18 years and younger between 2010 and 2019, according to a report published in August. That is more than twice the number reported from 1990 to 2009.

Dr. Neha Patel shows a penny and a similar-sized button battery....

Dr. Neha Patel shows a penny and a similar-sized button battery.

Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

That report appeared in Pediatrics, a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Researchers also found the emergency department visit rate was highest among children ages 5 and younger. The age group with the highest number of battery-related visits was 1-year-olds.

Electrochemical reaction

Patel said a child who swallows a button battery should be brought to the emergency room immediately. The batteries actually can generate a current caused by an electrochemical reaction when it mixes with saliva inside the body.

“The burn caused by a battery can cause a hole in the trachea or esophagus,” she said.

She displayed images of the damage to the tissue in one young patient's throat after swallowing a button battery.

"It looks like a bomb went off in this child’s throat," she said.

The death of a Texas toddler, who suffered grave injuries after ingesting a button battery in 2020, sparked a law signed earlier this year by President Joe Biden.

Reese’s Law, named for Reese Hamsmith, requires the Consumer Product Safety Commission to establish product safety standards for batteries that pose an ingestion hazard such as button cell or coin batteries, including a warning label instructing consumers to keep the batteries out of the reach of children. 

Elmitas Jean of Westbury was shocked and terrified when she found out last year her toddler daughter, Atarah, had swallowed a button battery. She knew something was wrong when the 3-year-old stopped eating but wasn’t complaining about any pain.

An X-ray showed the battery in her throat.

“I just started crying because I could not imagine what she was going through,” Jean said.

Atarah needed several follow-up visits to help repair the damage and swelling to her esophagus. To complicate matters, she had some pre-existing issues with her throat that had been discovered when she was a few months old.

She is doing better but still receiving treatment, said Jean, who hopes her daughter’s story will help raise awareness of the dangers of ingested button batteries.

Patel said parents need to keep the batteries in a safe place, away from children. If an item, such as a toy, contains the batteries, parents should make sure they are firmly secured in that item and not accessible to children.

A button battery is visible on an X-ray. 

A button battery is visible on an X-ray.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

On the wall of her New Hyde Park office, Patel keeps many of the items she and her colleagues have removed from the throats of children. They serve as a teaching tool and a reminder of how even the most benign items can cause a hazard for young children.

There are pushpins, tiny chicken bones, colorful beads and minuscule pieces of popcorn.

'More likely to choke'

In addition, many common food items, such as pieces of steak and hot dogs, often become stuck in a young child’s throat if they are not cut into very small pieces.

“Kids younger than age 4 are at higher risk for aspirating certain items,” Patel said. “They don't have protective chewing and swallowing mechanisms. They like to run around while they are eating, and they are more likely to choke.”

If the item is lodged in the child’s vocal folds, or voice box, it can be a life-threatening emergency, she said.

Some signs that a child may have swallowed a foreign object, such as a button battery, are drooling, noisy breathing and refusing to eat or drink, Patel said.

If the child is over the age of 1 and swallowed the battery within the most recent 12 hours, parents can give them two teaspoons of honey every 10 minutes as they travel to the emergency room. That effort may coat the battery and decrease the incidence of burns.

Patel said she and her colleagues are conducting a study to compare battery ingestion visits to Cohen’s emergency room in current years with the past decade.

She’s also working with the departments of pediatrics, gastroenterology, emergency medicine and the operative nursing teams on improved protocols to make sure children who may have ingested batteries or other foreign bodies are seen immediately instead of sitting in waiting rooms.

“Time is of the essence,” Patel said.

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