Water Beads

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Injury Prevention Team

Water Beads

Water beads are popular toys for children. The brightly colored bubble-like beads are smooth and squishy. They magically grow in size when exposed to liquids making them intriguing for all ages.

Sometimes adults bring water beads into their home without knowing it. They have been found in science or sensory activity kits, in addition to being sold separately. The low-cost of water beads makes them an attractive toy option. Fifty thousand beads can be purchased through popular online retailers for less than $10.

Unfortunately, the beads pose serious health risks. The small beads can be swallowed, inhaled or pushed into other openings of the body causing various problems. We urge all caregivers and health care professionals to learn more about water beads and how to protect children from the dangers they can cause.

Do you have a question about water beads or water bead safety? Contact the Safe Kids San Antonio team by calling 210-358-4295.

Water beads, also known as gel beads or jelly beads, are very small balls made of gel-like materials. The beads are similar to the size of a marble. After exposure to liquid, such as water, the beads expand. Jumbo water beads can grow to be the size of a tennis ball. 

The beads are made from superabsorbent polymers. Most superabsorbent polymers are made from petroleum products, polyacrylate and other acrylics. When the polymers are exposed to liquid, they absorb large amounts of the liquid without dissolving, which is how water beads expand. Some water beads can expand up to 1500 times their original size. 

Some polymer materials are known toxins. This is confusing because many water bead products are labeled non-toxic. Some children who have swallowed the beads have been diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy and other neurological disorders. Caregivers may want to do extra research before allowing their child to play with these products. 

The small beads are easily swallowed, inhaled, or inserted into other areas of the body, such as the nose or ears. Once the beads are exposed to saliva, stomach acid or other liquid, they expand in the body. Due to their gel-like consistency, it is often difficult to move the beads through the body. The longer they remain, the larger they grow.

The beads are very difficult to see on traditional x-rays. They are malleable, taking the shape and form of the organ or part of the body where they are located.

If a child has any of the following warning signs, caregivers must make medical professionals aware that they have water beads in their home. Sometimes additional diagnostic tools may be needed to see the ingested water beads, such as CT scans or scans using contrast. Children may require surgery to remove the beads from their body.

Unfortunately, the symptoms may be very similar to other conditions. Generally, caregivers should be at attentive to any changes in their child’s behavior, especially if there are water beads in the home, school or daycare setting. The size and bounce of the beads makes them easy to lose in carpet or under furniture. Smaller children can easily find the beads and swallow them, even if adults watched their older children when they played with the products.

Swallowing water beads requires immediate medical care. If your child has any of the following symptoms and you have water beads in the home, then the child may have swallowed or inhaled the beads (Note: This is not a full list of possible warning signs):

  • Gastrointestinal issues: nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea
  • Unexplained skin rash
  • Weight loss with normal appetite
  • Change in motor skills: walking, sitting, standing, etc.
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Any new or concerning symptom

It is important for caregivers to tell medical professionals that they have water beads in the home. This can save time as physicians look for clues to what may be causing symptoms in their child.

Remove water beads from your home – Do not flush or wash the beads down the sink. The beads expand in liquid and can cause plumbing problems. Water beads can be bagged and thrown out with household garbage.

  • Talk to the parents of your children’s friends – Similar to other questions you may ask if your child will be in someone else’s home, it is important to know if the home has water beads.
  • Talk to your daycare provider –  Ask you daycare provider to remove water beads from the facility.
  • Talk with your child’s school – Ask you school to remove water beads from play and art or craft areas.
  • Ask your therapist – If you child receives therapy, ask your therapist to not use water beads with your child.
  • Spread the word – Share information about the dangers of water beads with other parents.