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Dry cell battery poisoning

Dry cell batteries are a common type of power source. Tiny dry cell batteries are sometimes called button batteries.

This article discusses the harmful effects from swallowing a dry cell battery (including button batteries) or breathing in large amounts of dust or smoke from burning batteries.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Alternative Names

Batteries - dry cell

Poisonous Ingredient

Acidic dry cell batteries:

  • Manganese dioxide
  • Ammonium chloride

Alkaline dry cell batteries:

  • Sodium hydroxide
  • Potassium hydroxide

Lithium dioxide dry cell batteries:

  • Manganese dioxide

Where Found

Dry cell batteries are used to power a variety of different items. Small dry cell batteries may be used to power watches and calculators, while larger ones (for example, size "D" batteries) can be used in items such as flashlights.

Symptoms

Symptoms depend on what type of battery is swallowed.

Symptoms of acidic dry cell battery poisoning include:

Symptoms that can result from breathing in large amounts of the acidic battery, or contents, dust, and smoke from burning batteries include:

Symptoms of alkaline battery poisoning may include:

  • Severe pain in the mouth
  • Collapse
  • Inability to breathe due to the throat swelling shut
  • Severe pain in the throat
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Drooling
  • Rapid drop in blood pressure

Home Care

Immediate emergency treatment is necessary after a battery is swallowed.

Get medical help right away. Do NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care professional. Immediately give the person water or milk, unless instructed otherwise by a health care provider.

If the person breathed in fumes from the battery, immediately move him or her to fresh air.

If the battery broke and contents touched the eyes or skin, wash the area with water for 15 minutes.

Before Calling Emergency

Determine the following information:

  • Person's age, weight, and condition
  • Type of battery
  • Time it was swallowed
  • Amount swallowed

Poison Control

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Take the battery with you to the hospital, if possible.

See: Poison control center - emergency number

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The health care provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure.

The person will need immediate x-rays to make sure the battery is not stuck in the esophagus. Most swallowed batteries that pass through the esophagus will pass in the stool without complication. However, if a battery gets stuck in the esophagus, it can cause a hole in the esophagus very quickly.

The person may receive:

  • Bronchoscopy - camera and tube down the throat into the lungs and airways to remove a battery that is stuck in the respiratory tract
  • Upper endoscopy - tube and camera through the mouth into the esophagus and stomach to remove a battery stuck in the swallowing tube (esophagus)
  • X-rays to look for the battery

Symptoms will be treated as appropriate.

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment was received. The faster a person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery. Full recovery is often possible if treated quickly.

Serious problems are usually seen only following industrial accidents. Most household exposures (such as licking some liquid from a leaking battery or swallowing a button battery) are minor. If a large battery does not pass through the intestinal tract within a limited period of time and is causing bowel blockage or threatens to leak, a surgical procedure with general anesthesia may be needed.

References

Hostetler MA. Gastrointestinal disorders. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 170.

Hostetler MA. Gastrointestinal disorders. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls, RM, eds. Marx: Rosen's Emergency Medicine-Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2013:chap 172.

Updated: 1/26/2014

Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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