In recent years, water beads, which resemble colourful jelly marbles, have become a popular sensory toy, especially for children with autism and sensory issues. But now moms and other parents on TikTok are sounding the alarm on the dangers of these jewel-toned plastic balls. More frequently kids have been found swallowing the water beads, and in some cases have experienced life-threatening injuries.
Because water beads look very much like candy, infants and younger toddlers might not know the difference and attempt to eat a water bead, which can pose some serious health risks. We spoke with Jenna J. Wheeler, MD, a pediatric critical-care physician at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital For Children, to learn more about whether water beads are dangerous, water beads injuries, and what to look for if you suspect your child has swallowed or inhaled a water bead.
What Are Water Beads?
Water beads are play toys made of super-absorbent polymer chemicals that can grow 1,500 times their original size when they are placed in water, according to HealthyChildren.org. These polymers can be natural or synthetic and contain petroleum products, polyacrylate, and other acrylics, per the National Capital Poison Centre. Although the polymers in the beads don't cause harm, if swallowed or inserted into the body via nostrils, ears, or any other body part, the beads can continue to grow and cause intestinal blockages or airway damage.
Are Water Beads Dangerous?
Because water beads look similar to candy and young kids have a tendency to put things in their mouths, they can become a choking hazard. And if they are swallowed, the beads can increase in size before symptoms present. "By the time the symptoms of abdominal pain, vomiting, and intestinal obstruction are present, it can be very severe, if not life-threatening," Dr. Wheeler says.
In addition, children may put water beads in their ears or nostrils, which can cause hearing damage and airway injuries. Depending on where the beads get stuck, your little one may also be at risk for infection. "If these things remain lodged for a significant period of time and become impacted, it requires surgical interventions and anesthesia, which carry risks, in order to as safely as possible remove the bead," Dr. Wheeler says.
That being said, water beads can be a safe sensory toy if you are closely supervising your child and feel confident that they are past the age of putting things in their mouths or other body parts. As parents, it's also important to keep in mind who else is in the home. For example, if you have an 8-year-old who's playing with water beads, but you also have a 2-year-old who may come in contact with them, it's important to be mindful of where the beads are at all times, Dr. Wheeler says. "It's very easy for them [water beads] to end up in locations that you don't anticipate them to," she adds. "So it's about being cautious."
How to Tell If Your Child Has Swallowed Water Beads
Water-beads injuries aren't always easy to spot. Here are some symptoms your child may experience if they've swallowed a water bead, according to Dr. Wheeler:
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Not tolerating food well
- Lack of bowel movements
As symptoms worsen over time, you may find it difficult to wake up your child; they become very listless, pale, and ill-appearing, she says. If your child has any of these symptoms, call 911 right away. If your child isn't showings symptoms yet but they told you that they swallowed a water bead or you witnessed them swallow it, take them to the nearest emergency room immediately.
"In the event of ingestion or inhalation, this goes beyond just calling the pediatrician," Dr. Wheeler says. Parents should head to emergency medical care as quickly as possible. Depending on whether the water bead can be found right away after ingestion, doctors may be able to go in with an endoscope to retrieve it. But keep in mind that it is still a surgical procedure that requires anesthesia, which comes with risks for children, she says.
So, if your child plays with water beads or they have playdates with kids who have water beads, it's important for parents to closely supervise them and clean up thoroughly afterward, making sure to keep the beads out of reach for young children and pets.
"There are a lot of good developmental and sensory toys out there that come with a clear label for the ages that they are appropriate for. It's really about following those guidelines and using your pediatrician for references," Dr. Wheeler says. "The biggest thing for parents to remember is when you have multiple children in the home, it's important to have age-appropriate toys for all children. If you have a toddler who puts things in their mouth, then perhaps water beads are not a good toy for your household."