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Button Batteries and Rare Earth Magnets: What Parents Should Know

Small and easy to swallow, these items pose a serious health hazard to children

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button batteries

If your child swallows a small battery or magnet, emergency care is essential.

It’s not uncommon for young children to put things in their mouths and even swallow them. In some instances, this can be a minor nuisance for parents. However, in other cases, what your child swallows can be very dangerous.

Two common household items – button batteries and rare earth magnets – can cause severe injury and lead to dangerous medical complications if swallowed and not caught quickly.

“Both button batteries and rare earth magnets are small and shiny – a dangerous combination that can tempt a child to put them in their mouth,” says pediatric hospitalist Richard Mazzaccaro, MD, with Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital. “While parents might not know the moment their child swallows them, as soon as they notice something is wrong or these items are missing, they should go right to the emergency room.”

Detection

While you may not immediately know that your child has swallowed these items, some symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Choking
  • Difficulty or painful swallowing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

These symptoms can be easily overlooked, so if your child experiences them, be sure to check any items containing these batteries or magnets to make sure none are missing.

“The specialists at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital are ready to handle these cases and work quickly and diligently to provide these kids with the best possible care and outcomes,” says Richard Mazzaccaro, MD.

Button batteries

Button batteries are small, nickel-shaped batteries found in key fobs, toys, remote controls, watches and other devices. If swallowed, they can cause severe damage. In just two hours, a battery lodged in the esophagus can result in a chemical burn that can cause irreversible damage or death.

Because of this and other possible complications, it’s incredibly important that the battery is identified and removed as quickly as possible.

Rare earth magnets

An X-ray of a child who swallowed rare earth magnets (circular objects on the left).
An X-ray of a child who swallowed rare earth magnets (circular objects on the left).

Rare earth (neodymium) magnets are widely used in toys, office supplies, jewelry and tools. They are small and can be either ball- or disc-shaped.

Young children may put them in their mouth, leading to one or more of them being swallowed. Older children may also use them to mimic piercings, which can lead to accidental ingestion.

“The primary concern is children who swallow more than one magnet,” Mazzaccaro says. “They are very strong. As the magnets are passed through the gastrointestinal system, they can attract each other through loops of intestine and erode through the lining. This causes perforations of the intestine, which can be life-threatening.”

While the time frame for treatment is slightly less urgent than situations involving button batteries, it’s still very important for your child to be evaluated in an emergency setting as soon as possible.

If one magnet was swallowed, the child is often sent home to be monitored and restricted from wearing clothing with magnetic accessories. If multiple magnets were swallowed, the child is usually admitted to the hospital for continuous monitoring and removal (if necessary).

Specialized care at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital

The Pediatric Emergency Department at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital follows an advanced button battery activation protocol to make sure affected children are treated as quickly as possible. When children arrive at our Children’s ER with a possible button battery obstruction, the multidisciplinary button battery removal team is alerted quickly and arrive on-site within 30 to 45 minutes.

In addition, Mazzaccaro leads a team of specialists that quickly evaluates children who have swallowed rare earth magnets and determines whether they need to be admitted for monitoring or a removal procedure.

“The specialists at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital are ready to handle these cases and work quickly and diligently to provide these kids with the best possible care and outcomes,” Mazzaccaro says.

Emergency Care Just for Kids

Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital has the region’s only 24/7 emergency room dedicated to children.

Learn more

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