As Valentine's Day approaches, doctors are warning of a potential health hazard inside many greeting cards -- button-sized batteries that can hurt or even kill a child who swallows one.
Doctors at Children's Hospital Central California say one child has died in the past few months after swallowing a disk battery of the type that can be found not only in some greeting cards but also in toys, hearing aids, cameras and other electronics.
The batteries can lodge in a child's esophagus and leak acid that burns tissue, said Dr. Robert Kezirian, an emergency room doctor at Children's.
"I've been involved in three cases" in the past three to four months, Kezirian said.
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Nationwide, 3,613 button batteries were swallowed in 2006, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. California typically accounts for 13% to 14% of the nation's poison cases, which would mean about 500 batteries were ingested statewide, doctors say.
Most of the batteries are swallowed by children, and they're especially enticing to babies and toddlers, doctors say. The batteries are "bright and shiny, and they put everything in their mouth," said Dr. Richard Geller, medical director of the California Poison Control System at Children's Hospital.
Someone who suspects a child has swallowed a battery should get the child examined, Kezirian said. Damage can happen quickly.
The tiny batteries tend to leak a caustic acid. And because the batteries are not always well-sealed, a little bit of moisture can create a connection inside the child's body, Kezirian said. "It can actually cauterize the tissue it's touching."
If the battery travels to a child's stomach, the stomach acid usually neutralizes the battery acid, and the battery passes through the digestive system without problem, he said. But the batteries can lodge in a child's throat or get into the lungs and block the airway. The child can suffocate.
A battery lodged in the esophagus -- the tube connecting the throat to the stomach -- is a medical emergency, Kezirian said. "It needs to be removed."
This past fall, a child died at Children's after swallowing a button-sized battery that became stuck in the esophagus, hospital officials said.
The battery acid burned through the esophagus and through the aorta, the major artery of the heart, Kezirian said. The child bled to death. For privacy reasons, Children's officials would not identify the child.
A hole can develop in the esophagus in a matter of a few hours, Geller said.
The batteries should be stored in a safe place and disposed of properly, Kezirian said. Don't leave batteries in a bowl on a dresser or allow them to fall onto a carpet, where a child can find them, he said.