Dangers of Tiny Magnets and Batteries

Any parent knows an infant’s curiosity about new objects isn’t often satisfied until they put the object in their mouth.

But toddlers manage to get their hands on all manner of objects, sometimes meaning danger, especially from those tiny yet powerful magnets and miniature batteries so common today in toys and electronics. Even teens run into problems when they use miniature magnets as fake piercings and accidentally swallow them.

“They can cause so many complications, including death,” said Elizabeth McDonough, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health.

Miniature batteries pose a threat because they can quickly erode a child’s esophagus lining, Dr. McDonough said. They’re found in all manner of toys and devices, including remote controls, thermometers, toys and games, hearing aids, calculators, bathroom scales, key fobs, holiday ornaments and cameras. Nationwide, 2,500 children each year require emergency medical care after swallowing button batteries.

Tiny rare-earth magnets, meanwhile, are surprisingly powerful for their size. If a child swallows more than one, the magnets can spontaneously slam together with enough force to cause serious, even life-threatening damage to the digestive tract. Dr. McDonough treats at least one patient per month who has swallowed tiny magnets or batteries.

Her advice: discourage children old enough to understand from putting anything except food in their mouths. Parents also should be vigilant about spotting and removing tiny batteries, magnets, or other small objects from where small children can reach them.

Safety Tips

  • Keep small magnets and products containing them away from young children.
  • Keep track of and monitor loose magnets in your home.
  • Avoid purchasing magnets sold in large sets, such as 100 or more. It makes it difficult to spot if a few magnets are missing.
  • Talk to your older children and teens about the dangers associated with using magnets as fake piercings in their mouths or noses.

Symptoms: What to Look For

Miniature Magnets

  • Delaying treatment for swallowed magnets or batteries can lead to severe damage of the stomach, intestines and digestive tract—even death.
  • Abdominal pain, vomiting and fever are common. However, because they’re so common and not usually caused by ingested objects, you may not suspect the real cause right away.
  • Contact your pediatrician or nearest emergency department immediately if you suspect your child has swallowed or been injured by a magnet.

Button Batteries

  • Contact your pediatrician or nearest emergency department immediately if you suspect your child has swallowed or been injured by a button battery.
  • Symptoms can be virtually absent or similar to those of a common infection, making diagnosis difficult.
  • Button batteries in the nose or ear canal can cause drainage or pain, which is not unique to button batteries.
  • Batteries lodged in the nose can damage tissues or even cause holes.
  • In the ear canal, they can cause hearing loss, holes in the eardrum, and paralysis of facial nerves.
  • Elsewhere in the body, button batteries’ electric current leads to rapid and significant tissue damage, even within two hours.

The federal government keeps a list of toy safety concerns at www.cpsc.gov/safety-education/safety-guides/toys.