Water Beads: Harmful if Swallowed, Put in Ears

Feb 8, 2023 | News, Wellness Care

Water-absorbing gel beads sold as sensory toys and used in vases and gardens are a growing problem among young children.

What are water beads?

Made of superabsorbent polymer chemicals, water beads are also known as jelly beads, hydro orbs, crystal soil and gel beads. They are also called sensory beads, used as play tools for children with autism and other developmental conditions. When the tiny, hard plastic balls are placed in water, they can grow up to 1,500 times their size. The clear, colorful beads can then be dried out and reused.

Why water beads can be dangerous for young children

The problem is that because water beads look like candy, young children may be tempted to swallow them. Kids also have put them in their ears, and even inhaled them. The beads can continue to grow once inside the body, causing blockages and life-threatening damage. And the beads may not be visible on X-rays.

Recently, while the beads are labeled as “non-toxic,” concerns also been raised about the safety of the chemical acrylamide used to make them.

Water beads safety tips

If you are interested in buying water beads, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Consider waiting until all the children in your household are at least 3 years old.
  • Only use water beads on a table over a hard floor. Sweep or vacuum immediately afterward. Because some are the size of a pinhead when dry, they are difficult to find or notice if they fall on the floor.
  • Store the water beads in a tightly sealed container kept in a safe place that young children can’t reach. 
  • Supervise children when using water beads.

Signs your child may have swallowed water beads

  • Refusing to eat
  • Lethargy
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Complaints that something is stuck in the throat or chest
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal swelling and soreness

If you suspect your child swallowed or placed water beads into their ears, seek treatment right away. You can also call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.

Have some water beads been recalled?

A decade ago, deaths of children overseas and injuries in the U.S. prompted a voluntary recall of several types of water-absorbing balls, beads and toys shaped like fruit and animals. Similar products still are sold in craft stores and garden centers.

website created by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has documented many reports of children being injured after ingesting water beads. Many recent cases reported to the CPSC involve young children under 3 years old swallowing water beads given to their older siblings. At least one case led to a death. Poison Controlreported a 6-month-old who needed surgery after swallowing a water bead; the baby later died from an infection.

In two CPSC reports, children were treated for ear infections when doctors couldn’t spot clear beads in their ears during an exam. The delay in finding the beads allowed them to grow until the kids, who were 5 and 7 years old, needed surgery. Both have ear drum damage, and one hearing loss.

More information

Last Updated 2/2/2023

Source American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence & Poison Prevention (Copyright © 2023)

The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.

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