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Magnets and Batteries Pose Holiday Risks for Kids

December 16, 2021

One recent evening, pediatric gastroenterologist Barbara Verga, MD, fished 10 bright green magnets from the small intestine of a young patient. This was not unusual. “We are seeing these magnet ingestions with increasing frequency,” Dr. Verga says. Small, brightly colored and powerful “rare earth” magnets were banned in 2012 but returned to the market in 2016. They are often found in desk toys and “are easy to get hold of and easy to swallow,” Dr. Verga says.

What Parents Should Do If Kids Swallow Magnets, Batteries

  1. Drive to the emergency department immediately. This is an emergency.
  2. Do not give your child anything to induce vomiting.
  3. If there is a similar object to the one swallowed, it may help to bring it to the emergency department so doctors have an idea of the size and shape.

They are also “exceedingly strong,” she says. “If one magnet goes farther down into the small bowel and the other is behind, they will attract one another and loops of bowel will be trapped between. The pressure makes a hole in the bowel; there have been many reports of kids who have died from overwhelming infection or have required a small bowel transplant.”

Another household danger, especially around the holidays, are flat, disc-shaped batteries, found in toys, remote controls and musical greeting cards. Batteries in these cards are often large and easily removed, Dr. Verga warns. “The tightest part of the gastrointestinal tract is near the collarbone. If a battery gets caught there it can burn through the tissues of the esophagus in as little as four hours and burn all the way through to the aorta. If that happens, a patient can bleed to death in seconds.

In both cases, doctors will use X-rays to locate the object. “Magnets or batteries in the stomach or the beginning of the small intestine can be removed endoscopically using a net,” Dr. Verga says. If they are farther down and have stalled, they will require surgical removal.

Magnets and devices with batteries should always be kept away from small children, Dr. Verga says – even dead batteries, “which can still have enough charge to burn tissue in the esophagus. That’s why you should always throw dead batteries away.”

Barbara Verga, MD and Pediatric Gastroenterology are part of Atlantic Medical Group, a multispecialty network of health care practitioners. Dr. Verga can be reached at 973-971-5676.