Utah mom warns about button batteries after 9-month-old’s trip to the ER

Brayden Imlay, who is 9 months old, was rushed to the hospital after a button battery got caught in his throat on March 9. His mom is hoping to warn others about the dangers of button batteries. (Imlay family photo)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Cassidie ​​Imlay learned the hard way how dangerous small button batteries can be for toddlers and infants, after her 9-month-old son found a small, shiny battery on the floor and put it in his mouth.

The St. George mom said her son Brayden is at a stage where he is army-crawling and scooting, just starting to move around on his own. She cleared off everything she could see on the floor before setting him down, and had turned her back for just a few seconds when she heard choking and screaming.

Even though he was vomiting, what he had swallowed was not coming out.

Imlay was the only adult at the home at the time, as she was out of town caring for other children in addition to her own two. She rushed to find a babysitter to watch the other children so that she could take Brayden to the emergency room.

After an ambulance ride and X-ray, doctors were able to find the button battery and remove it within hours, but not before it left burns along his esophagus.

Imlay said most things that children can swallow are able to pass through their system without any issue, but batteries cause a lot more concern. They can create an electrical charge, which causes burns and the acid can leak out as batteries corrode.

“Put your batteries away, watch out for batteries. You just don’t know how dangerous they are,” Imlay said.

dr. Katie Russell, a pediatric surgeon at Primary Children’s Hospital, said that small button batteries are particularly harmful to children between six months and 3 or 4 years old. She said that if adults swallow a button battery it has a good chance of moving right through them, but because of children’s size, it will most likely get stuck which is what can lead to life-threatening issues.

She explained that button batteries will get stuck about two inches into a child’s upper esophagus and then create a completed circuit, causing a burn, as the battery is in contact with tissue and reacts to saliva.

Although battery burns like Brayden received in the esophagus are dangerous, there can be worse outcomes when children don’t receive care quickly. Russell said she has had multiple patients who have had stays in an intensive care unit after swallowing a battery.

Scar tissue from burns can lead to an esophageal stricture, scar tissue build-up which makes it harder to eat properly, requiring repeated procedures to stretch out the esophagus. If the burn breaks through the esophagus it can lead to a tracheoesophageal fistula when the esophagus is connected to airways in the throat or the burn can reach arteries which can cause life-threatening bleeding.

Russell said that in addition to button batteries, magnets can also cause significant problems in children, especially small ball-shaped magnets like Buckyballs that are used to make designs and sculptures. If multiple small magnets are swallowed, they can pull together inside a child’s body and can rip holes through intestines or get stuck.

“When I think about things that I take care of that are preventable problems, No. 1 is button battery and No. 2 is magnets,” Russell said. “And I advise all families with young children that they need to either lock up or throw out magnets and button batteries.”

Brayden swallowed the battery on March 9, and Imlay said her baby seems to be doing better now, after about two weeks of acting sick and wanting to be held. They are still watching him closely and going to doctor appointments to ensure that scar tissue in his esophagus doesn’t restrict his ability to eat by causing food to get stuck.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know how dangerous they were. I thought it was probably going to be fine after it was removed and yet we’re still dealing with possible effects of the whole thing,” Imlay said.

She said that she is typically very diligent and aware of choking hazards, but on this day she was in an environment that wasn’t her own and didn’t have as much control. After learning how dangerous these small button batteries can be, Imlay wanted to help more people be aware to help prevent this from happening to other families.

These little batteries, which are usually about 20mm in diameter, can be found in watches, key fobs, garage door openers, cameras and even greeting cards that have noise or other features that need electricity.

Russell suggested keeping any of these things away from children, and being aware of where magnets or items that have these batteries are kept so that if a child has swallowed something adults will be able to identify if it was a button battery or magnet.

She said if a parent thinks their child swallowed a button battery, they should go straight to the emergency department, because the danger of complications is low if the battery is removed within a few hours.

Russell said that Primary Children’s sees a child with a swallowed button battery at least once a month, although having a child who needs to go to the ICU for life-threatening outcomes is more rare. A national study Russell found said that about 6,000 children each year seek treatment after swallowing a button battery in the United States.

“I think we as medical providers wish that they would stop making these batteries, you know, and create some kind of another alternative power mechanism,” Russell said. “It doesn’t seem like that’s probably going to happen. But this is a very serious problem.”

Button battery packaging is required to contain warnings to keep the batteries away from toddlers, but Russell said she has removed batteries from a child’s throat with stickers still on the battery depicting a cross over a toddler, showing the stickers and warnings aren’t enough.

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