Doctors in Dubai note increase in children swallowing magnets and coin batteries

Some objects can lodge in the airway or digestive tract and cause serious complications

An X-ray shows a coin battery lodged in a child's respiratory tract.
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Doctors in the UAE are urging parents to lock away magnets and button batteries after a significant increase in the number of children being treated for ingesting or choking on foreign objects.

Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital in Dubai treated more than 50 children for the condition in 2021 after items became lodged in their airway or digestive tract.

There have been nine similar cases so far this year, it said.

Most objects, such as marbles, buttons or earrings, pass through without serious injury.

But button batteries and magnets can be lethal.

Batteries and magnets can burn through the oesophagus within two hours. Early detection can avoid long-term consequences
Dr Christos Tzivinikos, gastroenterology consultant

Coin lithium batteries, which are usually small and easy to swallow, trigger an electrical current when they come into contact with saliva or mucus. The chemical reaction can severely burn the oesophagus in only two hours, so early treatment is important.

“These batteries can create a strong chemical reaction in the throat or stomach, leading to severe internal bleeding and a host of other issues,” said Dr Christos Tzivinikos, gastroenterology consultant with the hospital's Aerodigestive Service.

“Any swallowed object can get trapped in the oesophagus before reaching the stomach, requiring expert medical treatment at a specialised aerodigestive hospital to ensure safe removal.

"Batteries and magnets can burn through the oesophagus within two hours, meaning early detection is often the difference between a quick and complete recovery and long-term consequences.”

The hospital has also seen cases of swallowed magnets, which can stick together in the intestines and bowels, squeezing tissues and cutting the blood supply.

An X-ray shows nine magnets in the stomach of a child. If several magnets are swallowed they can potentially cause dangerous tears to the intestine.

In 2021, the UAE banned the sale of small magnetic balls – popularly known as rare-earth magnets – because of the risk they pose to children who swallow them.

Doctors said diagnosis can be particularly difficult in infants, who cannot explain what they swallowed or how they feel.

Symptoms are not always immediately apparent. But children may develop breathing difficulties or become generally unwell.

Swallowed batteries may cause them to cough or vomit blood, according to the UK's National Health Service. And batteries inserted into the nose or ear could cause nose bleeds or bleeding from the ear, it said.

Other red flags include drooling and discomfort.

“Parents must be extremely attentive to where small, harmful objects can be found around their homes,” said Dr Safeena Kherani, a consultant in paediatric otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Al Jalila.

Dr Ibrar Majid, medical director at Al Jalila Children's Specialty Hospital, said parents should keep a particularly close eye on children under the age of six.

“A child who has swallowed a foreign object should be taken immediately to a specialist for treatment as aerodigestive disorders are generally complex and require a multidisciplinary approach to their management,” he said.

In 2019, doctors at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi told The National that, on average, they see 15 cases a month in which children swallowed foreign bodies – the bulk of which are dirham coins.

The hospital said 258 children were admitted in an 18-month period between 2016 and 2018 after swallowing small objects, the majority involving children aged two to four.

Paul Pogba visits Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital – in pictures

Updated: March 10, 2022, 3:40 PM