Coin cell or “button” batteries are small, shiny, and feel tingly on the tongue. If you’re a toddler, that puts them into the category of “belongs in my mouth”. But a swallowed button battery can begin burning a hole through a kid’s oesophagus in hours, causing pain, severe injury, and sometimes complications leading to death.
Photo: VisualHunt/Best Running
Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia put CR2032 batteries onto samples of oesophagus tissue in the lab, and into the oesophagus of live, anaesthetised piglets. (CR2032 batteries, responsible for 90 per cent of these injuries, are about the size and shape of a five cent coin – big enough that they tend to get lodged in the oesophagus.)
In both sets of experiments, honey was able to limit the damage caused by the battery. The researchers tested other substances too, including maple syrup, juice, and a medication called Carafate, but honey did the best job.
Based on their results, the researchers say parents should give honey to a child who has swallowed a battery. It’s still important to get the battery out of the kid’s body as soon as possible, so your top priority should be rushing to the hospital. This means the best case scenario may be to speed there with your child sucking on a bottle of honey in the back seat.
But this is experimental and we don’t know if it will actually work.
Anaesthetised piglets are not the same as alert, active toddlers.
“History is littered with examples of medical interventions that were promising in animal studies but didn’t pan out in humans,” says paediatrician Clay Jones.
“I worry that jumping from porcine data to recommendations for action in human ingestions is premature and I would like to see better data. But I would certainly understand if a parent gave their child honey while seeking out appropriate medical care, as long as they are over a year of age.”
Honey isn’t recommended for infants under a year old, because there is a small risk of a baby contracting infant botulism. (By a year old, we usually have a good enough population of gut bacteria that Clostridium botulinum can’t grow in the intestines.)
In an emergency, perhaps the risk of botulism would be outweighed by the benefits of the honey treatment – but we don’t know yet, because we don’t know yet if the honey is truly beneficial.
For example, is a child going to be able to suck down enough honey to make a difference? Will the honey interfere with efforts to remove the battery? And if the child needs to be anaesthetised to remove the battery, isn’t it dangerous to have a stomach full of honey?
“My expectation is that, in real people with real ingestions, the benefit will be minimal or vanish completely,” says emergency physician Stuart Spitalnic. But it isn’t as though anybody is going to do a trial giving children batteries and testing what happens.
Both doctors agree that honey is probably not super dangerous in a button battery emergency. But if you try it, you should realise that it’s experimental, and that it isn’t a reason to delay treatment.
“There is always a hidden downside … useless or minimally useful treatments that waste time have the danger inherent in delay and the further danger of false reassurance that treatment has begun resulting in more delay,” Spitalnic says.
The bottom line: He’d grab honey on the way out the door if he had some at home, but wouldn’t waste time stopping by the store. I would probably do the same.