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Water Beads: A Safety Hazard for Children

This colorful toy and household decoration can cause serious health complications if swallowed or put in the ears or nostrils

Water Beads: A Safety Hazard for Children

The holiday season is a favorite time of year for many children. Along with celebrating with loved ones and making memories that last a lifetime, lots of kids receive gifts and enjoy helping set up festive decorations.

While there are many toys and decorative components that are fine to have around kids, one item that falls into both categories can pose a serious safety risk.

“Water beads, which are colorful gel balls often sold as toys and used in vases and air fresheners, can cause life-threatening health complications if they are swallowed or put in the ears or nostrils,” says pediatric hospitalist Richard Mazzaccaro, MD, PhD, with Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital.

To help parents and guardians protect their children, Mazzaccaro shares important information about water beads below:

The dangers of water beads

While water beads start out small, they are made to absorb water and increase in size. In addition to being a choking hazard when swallowed, if they grow too large and cannot pass through the digestive system, they can cause a life-threatening bowel obstruction – which often requires surgical intervention. This is most common with bigger beads, which are three centimeters (over one inch) in diameter or larger.

“This isn’t just a possibility or warning – there have been actual cases of bowel obstructions caused by water beads reported over the last few years,” Mazzaccaro says.

If you are going to use water beads as a decoration in your home, make sure you keep them out of reach from toddlers and school-aged children. - Richard Mazzaccaro, MD, PhD

There have also been cases of children putting the beads in their ears, which has led to ear infections, ear drum damage and temporary and permanent hearing loss.

Prevention tips

Because of the dangers associated with water beads, Mazzaccaro recommends not allowing children of any age to use them as a toy.

“If you are going to use them as a decoration in your home, make sure you keep them out of reach from toddlers and school-aged children,” he says.

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Symptoms and next steps

If you think your child may have ingested water beads and they are experiencing any of the following symptoms, it is best to bring them to an emergency room (like the Children’s Hospital’s Breidegam Family Children’s ER, which is the region’s only 24/7 emergency room specifically for kids) as soon as possible:

  • Abdominal pain and/or swelling
  • Excessive coughing/gagging
  • Excessive drooling
  • Feeling like something is stuck in their throat or chest
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Unusual or consistent loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing or breathing that is unusually fast or hard

However, if you suspect your child has swallowed water beads (or put them in their ears or nostrils), but they aren’t experiencing any symptoms, you should call their pediatrician for guidance on next steps.

“The risk of serious complications depends on the size of the water bead, how many were swallowed or put in the body, and how old your child is,” Mazzaccaro says. “Taking all of those factors into account, your child’s pediatrician can help you decide if you should go to the emergency room or if you can closely observe them at home.”

While Mazzaccaro says it’s important to know what to do in the worst-case scenario, he emphasizes the importance of prevention to avoid any life-threatening complications.

“It’s a cliché, but truly, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – especially when it comes to water beads and other dangerous items that children can ingest,” he says.

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Emergency Care Just for Kids

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

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