In recent years, our electronic toys and gadgets have become increasingly miniaturized. Their power requirements are being met by a new generation of compact, high-performance batteries. These disk batteries are small, pill- or coin-shaped devices that contain heavy metals such as zinc, mercury, silver, nickel, cadmium, and lithium. They also contain concentrated solutions of caustic electrolytes, usually potassium or sodium hydroxide. Their compact size and harmless appearance hide their true danger.
The danger comes when children (and sometimes adults) knowingly or mistakenly put these tiny batteries commonly known as button batteries in their mouths and swallow them.
Most swallowed button batteries cause no problem as they eventually pass through the body and are eliminated in the stool. However, sometimes batteries get “hung up”, and these are the ones that cause problems. A battery that is stuck in the esophagus is especially likely to cause tissue damage. An electrical current can form around the outside of the battery, generating hydroxide (an alkaline chemical) and causing a tissue burn. When a battery is swallowed, it is impossible to know whether it will pass through or get “hung up”.
Battery ingestion may not be obvious or symptomatic until harmful conditions develop. Thus, medical history and X-ray findings become exceedingly important for diagnosis.
The person who has swallowed a disk battery may have one or more symptoms.
• Retching (gagging)
• Abdominal pain
• Low-grade fever
• Persistent drooling
• Difficulty breathing if the battery is blocking the airway
• Rash from nickel metal allergy
• Dark or bloody stools
If your child ingests a battery, this is what you should do:
Battery ingestion is a medical emergency. The most prudent home treatment for someone who has swallowed a disk battery is to give nothing by mouth and to go to the nearest hospital emergency department. If it will not delay going to the emergency department, bring a sample of the battery ingested. All disk batteries contain an imprinted code that can be used to identify manufacturer, the battery’s actual size, and its contents.
Battery removal will likely be accomplished with an endoscope. An endoscope is a flexible fiber optic scope with ports for grasping devices to be passed through it. This scope is passed through the mouth and into the esophagus and stomach.
• Endoscopy allows for battery removal and visual inspection of the esophagus for damage. If an endoscope is not available, removal by other means may be attempted.
• Transit time for disk batteries through the digestive tract ranges from 12 hours to 14 days. The majority of cells are passed in the stool within 72 hours. At home, strain stools for passage of the battery.
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