Every day, and thousands of times a year in the US, a kid swallows a battery.
In the last 20 years or so, this dangerous and sometimes fatal accident has actually become significantly more common in children, and severe injuries caused by button battery ingestion (BBI) have led to a marked increase in hospitalizations.
Thankfully, in most such cases the item ends up passing harmlessly through the patient's digestive tract. However, even tiny batteries can cause tremendous damage if they get stuck in the esophagus.
Young children up to six years of age are most at risk of BBI complications due to their smaller body size, which increases the chance that a swallowed battery might get lodged in their esophagus – especially larger button batteries such as the ubiquitous 20-millimeter CR2032, used in a vast range of small electronics.
Within just two hours, a stuck battery can cause severe burns as its negatively charged surface makes prolonged contact with the conductive tissue of the esophagus; this contact produces an electrical current and breaks nearby water down into a highly corrosive fluid.
If this happens to your child – or you suspect your young, non-verbal child might have swallowed a battery – do not delay. Seek immediate medical attention, as a lodged battery could require urgent endoscopic removal.
However, while you're waiting for medical assistance, researchers now say there is something you can do yourself to mitigate the risk of tissue injury – and it makes use of a condiment many of us have in our kitchens.
According to a newly published research summary on BBI events and complications, honey may help when administered before the patient reaches the hospital, given at 10 milliliters every 10 minutes for children older than one year (up to six doses).
That recommendation is based on a study published in 2018, which explored injury mitigation from button battery blockages in the esophagus using an animal model of young pigs.
In the experiment, researchers tested a range of different household liquids (including honey, maple syrup, Gatorade, and fruit juices) to see whether any of them helped minimize tissue injury resulting from battery lodgment in the animal's esophagus.
Ultimately, two liquids produced the most clinically optimal results: honey, and a product called Carafate, (brand-name version of the medication sucralfate), which is used to treat ulcers and other stomach conditions.
"In the crucial period between button battery ingestion and endoscopic removal, early and frequent ingestion of honey in the household setting and Carafate in the clinical setting has the potential to reduce injury severity and improve patient outcomes," the authors explained.
"Esophageal BB impactions are serious, conferring a high risk of debilitating complications and even death. Our cadaveric and live animal studies support that early intervention with honey or Carafate suspension is clearly better than doing nothing."
It's worth noting, of course, that the animal model used here isn't solid proof that honey or sucralfate work to minimize esophageal injuries in human patients with batteries stuck in the esophagus.
Furthermore, at least some in the medical community have raised concerns about the honey technique, fearing parents might delay seeking urgent medical care, wasting critical time to try this home remedy first.
Additionally, in the piglet model, the various test solutions were injected near the site of the battery to ensure it would be adequately coated. If a kid ingests the honey, it would get diluted with saliva, and may not properly reach the battery to effectively coat it.
In response, the researchers behind the experiment clarified that their study was only seeking to illustrate a potential treatment option that might elongate the very short time period before tissue injury occurs.
"We are up against a severe hazard, a caustic BB that rapidly generates hydroxide ions, and the clock begins ticking from the moment it becomes lodged in the esophagus," the researchers wrote in a response to criticisms of their original study.
While the jury's out on just how effective honey administration might be in human children who have swallowed batteries, it's clear what the most important thing to do is in this scenario: Seek medical help right away, because in rare circumstances where the battery becomes stuck, you're looking at an emergency.
The new research summary on BBI complications is reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the 2018 study on honey as a mitigation strategy is available here.