Grave Danger in Swallowed Button Batteries

More than 3,500 people of all ages in the United States swallow a button battery every year. They're the small, flat lithium cells powering hearing aids, watches, toys and games, flashing jewelry, singing greeting cards, and remote control devices. They sell for $1 to $2 apiece. And if one lodges in the throat of the person who swallowed it, fatal burns may occur only two hours later, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics by five experts who work at Washington, D.C.'s National Capital Poison Center, the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, the Department of Emergency Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine, and the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

They say the swallowed batteries cause no harm if they pass into the stomach.

The authors searched three data sets and said all three indicate major and fatal cases are increasing. Ingestion of the 20- to 25-millimeter-diameter cells rose to 18 percent of all ingested button batteries in 2008 in the National Poison Data System data set, and outcomes were significantly worse for these large-diameter cells for children younger than four.

Most of the severe cases are ingestions that were not witnessed, and these are likely to be wrongly diagnosed -- which happened in at least 27 percent of major outcomes and 54 percent of fatal cases, they report -- because the victims' symptoms and complaints are non-specific.

They call for changing treatment guidelines to promote faster removal of a lodged battery from the esophagus, more vigilance for complications after removal, and better methods for identifying patients who require urgent radiographs. The center offers more information about this growing problem here.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Jun 07, 2010