Button batteries are found in many everyday objects such as watches, car keys, torches, toys and even greeting cards. They may seem like harmless household objects and to most adults they are, but to a toddler who’s exploring the world they can be deadly. When swallowed they can get stuck in the oesophagus (food pipe) and almost immediately start causing serious damage. Button batteries are dangerous because they react with bodily fluids such as mucous or saliva creating an electric current: this, along with leaks of chemicals from the battery, causes deep burns (fistula) through the oesophagus damaging other surrounding organs like the trachea (wind pipe) or the aorta, the main blood vessel in the chest. These fistulas can have chronic consequences like scarring and narrowing of these organs, and, unfortunately, sometimes they can cause fatal outcomes, massive bleeding or burning their way through to the lungs.
Suleiman Bilal from Wolverhampton is an inquisitive 16-month-old and like many children his age he loves finding out about the world around him: what it looks like, what it smells like and what it tastes like. But when Sulieman came across a button battery (whose shape resembles a sweet or a chocolate button) and decided to put it in his mouth, his family found themselves facing months of uncertainty and worry.
Suleiman’s mother Sajeeda said:
“We didn’t know he’d swallowed it. The first we knew of it was when he started refusing to eat. He couldn’t keep anything down except milk and water and would vomit whenever he ate solid food.”
Sajeeda contacted NHS 111 and took him to a walk-in centre but as she was not aware that Suleiman had swallowed the battery they believed it was an ear infection. When things didn’t improve after ten days the family took Suleiman to their local A&E who suspected his problem was caused by heartburn, a build-up of acid in his stomach. When there was still no improvement they went to the family doctor who told them to start feeding him baby food and formula milk as there was a possibility he was reacting badly to breast milk. For the next few weeks Suleiman’s condition continued to worsen and he was taken back to his local hospital A&E where he was eventually given an appointment for an X-Ray.(this was actually an outpatient appointment with paediatric assessment unit at wolverhampton new cross when they did the x-ray) It was only when they reviewed the X-Ray image that clinicians were able to see the battery in his oesophagus.
“Suleiman was losing weight and there didn’t seem to be anything they could do but when they found the button battery he was immediately sent to Birmingham Children’s. They needed to do surgery to remove the battery and because of the severity of the damage caused by the battery to his oesophagus he was in intensive care for a few days and in the hospital for several weeks afterwards. He also had to have a procedure to widen his oesophagus and at the moment he still can’t have normal food.”
Suleiman’s doctor, Consultant Surgeon Mr Giampiero Soccorso said:
“Button batteries are a hidden danger in every household, especially for toddlers, and parents should be aware of the harm they can cause. We see around a dozen children every year who have swallowed these batteries and the majority of them could be prevented if there was more awareness. A baby or toddler like Suleiman is too young to say that he has swallowed a battery so if parents don’t see it happen it could be days or weeks before they get the help they need and by then it could be too late. Depending on which level of the oesophagus the battery gets stuck, within few hours it can cause serious damage to the oesophagus and other vital organs; children have been known to die because of a massive bleeding from the aorta. Suleiman was lucky, the battery did not damage such vital organs; but, unfortunately, the burn in the oesophagus has developed into a stricture (scarred narrowing) which will require further surgery to allow him to eat.”
Thankfully, Suleiman is now recovering at home with Sajeeda and his Dad, Bilal and sister Maariyah, (4 years old). Sajeeda feels strongly that more needs to be done to raise awareness of the dangers of button batteries to both parents and GPs.
“Parents should take care to be aware of where batteries might be in their house and to put any that come out of toys or gadgets straight in the bin. It took almost five weeks before we knew what was wrong with Suleiman and I think that if doctors were more aware of the signs that a child has swallowed a battery then he could have been helped much sooner.”
Button batteries should be kept out of sight and reach of children but if you do suspect a child has swallowed one, take them to A&E without delay.
Tips for staying safe:
Keep batteries out of the sight and reach of children and keep them in their packaging until you need to use them.
Dispose of old batteries safely straightaway – do not keep them at home thinking you will get rid of them in future. Batteries should be disposed of in special containers you can find in your local area such as in supermarkets or in your local refuse disposal centre.
Many household items contain these batteries. Tape down battery compartments or keep items with these batteries out of sight and reach of children.
Ensure that all toys you buy meet safety regulations as unregulated toys are more likely to contain dangerous batteries.