Hand Sanitizers Poisoning More Kids

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Sept. 15, 2015 -- Poison center officials are warning parents and school officials about a troubling trend -- small children becoming intoxicated after drinking alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

"A doctor called us about a week and a half ago about two cases he saw the same day at the ER," says Gaylord Lopez, PharmD, director of the Georgia Poison Center. "It was a 5- and a 6-year-old."

The first patient, a 6-year-old girl, was picked up after school stumbling and slurring her words. She'd also fallen and hit her head. Her mother drove her straight to the ER, where doctors found out she'd eaten two to three squirts of strawberry-scented hand sanitizer from a big container sitting on her teacher's desk.

Her blood alcohol level was 1.79, almost twice what would be considered the legal limit in an adult.

The second case was a 5-year-old boy, who came in with a blood alcohol level of 2.0. The culprit was hand sanitizer.

Lopez checked the national data and saw these cases were part of an unrecognized trend. In 2010, U.S. poison centers got more than 3,600 calls about kids under age 12 eating hand sanitizers. By 2013, that number had swelled to more than 16,000 calls.

"That's a 400 percent increase," Lopez says. "I was surprised more than anyone."

What Adults Need to Know

Hand sanitizers come in brightly colored bottles, can be laced with glitter, and smell like bubble gum, lemonade, and vanilla -- packaging that makes them very tempting to young children.

The trouble is that these products can be 40% to 95% alcohol. Drinking even just little bit can make kids intoxicated. It's like drinking a shot or two of hard liquor.

"You and I don't have any problem sending our kids with hand sanitizer in their backpacks. But what if I told you that was twice as potent as vodka. That's like a parent sending a bottle of whiskey or rum to school," Lopez says.

Because of their small size, kids are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning than adults are. They may stagger, seem sleepy, or vomit. Their heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing may slow.

Alcohol can also cause a child's blood sugar to drop rapidly, leading to seizures and coma.

Lopez says hand sanitizers are often included in the list of school supplies parents should send to school. He says many adults he's talked to don't realize that hand sanitizers contain so much alcohol, or they don't realize that it's the kind of alcohol that can cause intoxication.

"I wanted to get the word out. Parents should be aware. Teachers should be aware."

Lopez sent a letter to the state superintendent and followed up with letters to the top 10 school systems in the state.

He says parents and teachers should keep hand sanitizers out of reach and allow kids to use them only with adult supervision. These products do "have a role in decreasing germs," he says.

If you're going to send hand sanitizer to school, Lopez thinks it's worth looking for brand that doesn't contain alcohol, or sending a child with hand wipes instead.

If you think your child has eaten hand sanitizer, he recommends you call the American Association of Poison Control Centers for free advice: 1-800-222-1222.

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SOURCE: Gaylord Lopez, PharmD, director, Georgia Poison Control Center, Atlanta.

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