The Dangers of Water Beads

Water beads have grown in popularity over the past 10 years. Arriving in packages of anywhere from 500 to 100,000 pieces, water beads can be as small as a pinhead when dry, and are made of a super absorbent polymer that can grow up to 100 times their original size when exposed to water. They are marketed in a variety of ways, including as toys, decorative items, craft supplies, and sensory tools for children with developmental disabilities.

Their appearance --- small and candy-like --- coupled with their size, may make them seem harmless. Unfortunately, if misused, they can do quite a bit of life-changing (and, sometimes, life-ending) damage.

Hazards and Risks

Water beads are especially risky in the hands of young children who may swallow them, or stick them in their ears or nose. If swallowed, the beads can continue to grow inside the body, resulting in a variety of harmful effects, including:

  • Blocked Intestines
  • Lung Damage
  • Seizures
  • Septic Shock

Larger water beads can present a choking hazard, while those of any size that are inserted in the ears or nose can lead to nasal cavity injuries and hearing loss.

Between December 2023 and February 2024, the Alabama Poison Information Center (APIC) responded to 50 exposures involving water beads. Prior to that time period, APIC has records of cases that were severe enough to require surgery. Nationwide, water beads have been linked to nearly 8,000 emergency room visits since 2016.

"The number and size of water beads ingested certainly increases the risk for a complication," said Jessica Pescatore, APIC Clinical Director.

That Water Bead Lady

Ashley Haugen learned how dangerous water beads can be in 2017 when her daughter Kipley, who was barely a year old at the time, developed a rash around her mouth. Over the next few weeks Kipley began exhibiting more serious symptoms, including changes in her personality and sleep patterns. This escalated to her not being able to hold food down.

As her condition worsened, Kipley's doctors chose to conduct exploratory surgery, which revealed that she had swallowed some water beads. The beads had been a gift to her older sister, who was only allowed to play with them under parental supervision. Kipley was not allowed to play with them at all. Unfortunately, at some point she found some of the beads and swallowed them.

Although the beads were successfully removed during surgery, the damage had been done. Kipley became uncoordinated and lost the ability to speak. Eventually she was diagnosed with Toxic Brain Encephalopathy caused by the exposure to toxic chemicals used to make the water beads.

Haugen has turned her family's experience into the basis for a non-profit organization dedicated to warning others about the potential dangers of water beads. Visit That Water Bead Lady to learn more. 

Symptoms of Water Bead Ingestion

The American Academy of Pediatrics lists the following as symptoms of possible water bead ingestion or inhalation:

  • Refusing to Eat
  • Lethargy
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Constipation
  • Unexplained Skin Rash
  • Change in Motor Skills

Safety Tips

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) advises that the only way to completely mitigate the hazards posed by water beads is to not allow them in your home. Otherwise, the following safety tips can help avoid injury: Otherwise, the following safety tips can help avoid injury:

  • Do not allow children to play with water beads unsupervised.
  • Store water beads in a secure container and location where young children cannot easily access them.
  • Be aware that water beads can easily scatter, roll, and become lost in the home and can be ingested in the dehydrated state.

In late 2023, several retailers, including Walmart, Amazon, Target, and Michaels, announced they would stop selling water beads marketed to kids. However, they are still readily available online and in stores.

If you suspect your child has inhaled or swallowed water beads, contact the Alabama Poison Information Center at 1-800-222-1222 for assistance.