NHS surgeons safety plea after surge in kids swallowing dangerous objects

Leading NHS children’s doctors are encouraging parents to be alert to the dangers of small toys this Christmas after surgeons have had to perform life-saving operations to remove button batteries, magnetic balls and Christmas cracker toys, in previous years.

The number of children being admitted to hospital after ingesting small objects has doubled over the last 10 years to 228, according to the latest data.

The warning comes as children wake up to new presents and toys with small – and potentially hazardous – parts on Christmas Day morning.

NHS doctors are particularly concerned by small button batteries and make up part of several high-profile Christmas gifts and also charge festive lights, TV remotes, watches, thermometers and even musical Christmas cards.

The penny-sized batteries can burn through a young person’s throat, food pipe or other internal body part, in a very short period of time if swallowed, causing irreversible damage.

If it doesn’t have electrical charge it may not get spotted – but can get lodged and react with the body’s chemicals, creating alkali over a period of time, causing a huge abscess cavity in the chest that can be fatal.

Young children are particularly likely to put small objects in their mouth and the Child Accident Prevention Trust says one to two children a year die in the UK from swallowing the batteries, while survivors may end up with life-changing alterations to their anatomy.

NHS National Clinical Director for Children and Young People Professor Simon Kenny said: “This time of the year is meant to be one of joy as families come together – and the last thing anyone wants is to spend Christmas at hospital as their child undergoes life-saving surgery.

“But unfortunately we are seeing an increase in the number of children at hospital because they have swallowed a foreign object – double the number we had 10 years ago – and the consequences can be devastating, especially when that object is a button battery or magnetic ball causing irreversible damage.

“We know these batteries and other small objects are part of Christmas gifts, lights and other everyday items like remote controls, but I would urge parents to keep their children as safe as possible by making sure loose batteries are securely out of reach and any gifts have batteries screwed in especially if they are bought online or from less reputable sources.”

The number of children under 15 who were admitted to hospital and required treatment after ingesting a small object has risen from 115 in 2011/12 to 228 in 2021/22 according to NHS Digital data.

This data is for children aged 0-14 and does not account for food, water, or other liquid like bleach, or for anyone that did not require hospital admission because for example they were treated in the community or died before being admitted to hospital.

Dozens of these cases can end up needing intrusive surgery at specialist children’s hospitals  – with a handful requiring major surgery on heart bypass to repair traumatic holes caused by batteries and magnets.

Children who have drunk bleach or cleaner cannot have a specific item removed but surgeons endeavour to limit further damage and resuscitate, but often children end up unable to swallow anything and require feeding through a tube into the stomach and with a tracheostomy to breather which may be lifelong.

Case study

In 2021, Ralphie Phillips was a day away from his first birthday when he spotted something on the floor while his mum was tidying and popped it into his mouth.

After being sent home from urgent care, he started vomiting blood and his mum Hollie knew something was very wrong.

She rushed him to hospital where an X-ray showed he had swallowed a button battery. It took surgeons three hours to remove it. The corrosive chemical reaction caused by the battery had burnt through towards his lungs.

Despite Hollie’s quick-thinking, Ralphie has been left with life-changing injuries.

She says: “The recovery hasn’t been easy. I went from having a fully-weaned one-year-old to feeding my son 24 hours through a tube. It’s why I want to do everything I can to warn other parents about the dangers of button batteries.”

Katrina Phillips, Chief Executive of the Child Accident Prevention Trust said: “Amid all the excitement on Christmas Day, your little one may spot a shiny button battery and pop it in their mouth. But, if it gets stuck, it can cause life-changing injuries or even kill them.

“Give presents a quick check as soon as they’re unwrapped. Look out for gifts with easy-access or spare button batteries and put them out your child’s reach. If a toy breaks and the battery drops out, pick it up as soon as you can.

“And if you think your child has swallowed a button battery, don’t delay, get them to A&E straight away.”

RoSPA’s Public Health Adviser, Ashley Martin, said: “RoSPA is aware of a number of deaths and some serious injuries in the UK as a result of children swallowing objects like small toy parts, magnets and Christmas decorations. Christmas is a busy time and its easy to get distracted but we urge families to be vigilant and to keep these products out of the reach of small children.

“Button batteries, which can be found in many products are particularly harmful. Check compartments are secure and that there are no loose button batteries lying around. If you think a child may have swallowed a button battery, seek medical advice immediately. Remember that time is very much of the essence.”

NHS England is advising parents to follow the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents advice to protect their children including;

  • Make sure that toys and other products using button batteries, such as small electronic devices, have lockable battery compartments. This should mean that they are safe for children to use as the batteries are locked away.
  • Be extra vigilant with items including musical greeting cards, flameless candles and remote controls as they do not have lockable compartments. RoSPA advises that children should not be allowed to have access to these products if the battery compartment is not secure.
  • Ensure that spare batteries are locked away, and used batteries are disposed of correctly.
  • If a child swallows a battery, immediately take them to A&E.