Alcohol-based hand sanitizer became a must-have item during the pandemic. But as sales jumped and families stocked up, poison control centers started getting more calls about little children who had accidentally ingested it.
Even now, about a year after the frenzy to stock up on sanitizer first began, hand sanitizer remains within easy reach in many homes, and calls to the nation’s poison control centers are on pace to continue trending higher than before the pandemic.
Last year, there were more than 20,000 exposures to hand sanitizer among children under 6, an increase of 40 percent from 2019, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers that was obtained by The New York Times.
Most of these exposures involved children 2 and younger who had ingested the sanitizer. In many cases, no symptoms were recorded, which means that the child might have only taken a brief taste or lick, something that will not typically cause significant health effects, said Dr. Justin Arnold, the medical director of Florida Poison Information Center Tampa. But in other instances, children experienced vomiting, cough and mouth irritation.
Even though most cases are mild, by storing sanitizer properly and supervising young kids while they use it, parents can avoid the stress of having to call poison control or taking an unnecessary trip to the emergency room.
The uptick in exposures has continued in recent months. In January, for example, there were nearly 34 percent more hand sanitizer exposures reported among children under 6 than there were the year before.
Exposure to household cleaners like liquid laundry detergent packets, bleach, all-purpose cleaners, drain cleaners and oven cleaners also increased, rising by 10 percent among children under 6 during the first few months of the pandemic, according to a report released in August by the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
But when it comes to hand sanitizer, something we regularly reach for when we’re outside and slather all over our hands, it’s easy to let your guard down, experts said. Especially because hand sanitizer does not come with a child-resistant closure.
“People don’t recognize how toxic it is if ingested, what the effects are and what they need to do for safe storage,” said William Eggleston, a clinical toxicologist at the Upstate New York Poison Center in Syracuse, N.Y., and an assistant professor at the Binghamton University School of Pharmacy.
What will happen if my child ingests hand sanitizer?
It depends how much is swallowed.
If children ingest enough alcohol-based hand sanitizer, they can get “dangerously drunk,” said Dr. Diane Calello, a pediatric toxicologist and the executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Center.
Last spring, Dr. Calello co-authored a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report about the rise in calls to poison centers that warned parents to keep hand sanitizers, cleaners and disinfectants away from kids. The report highlighted the case of a preschooler who was found unresponsive at her home near a 64-ounce bottle of ethanol-based hand sanitizer. Her blood alcohol level was at .27 percent, more than three times the federal legal limit over which an adult is not permitted to drive.
Hand sanitizer is 60 to 95 percent alcohol, a much stronger concentration than you would find in beer, wine or most hard liquors. A child weighing 20 pounds who drank a tablespoon or two could become intoxicated, Dr. Calello said, and appear “a little drunk.”
“As a dose gets higher they can get very sleepy and have trouble breathing, just as we see with severe adult alcohol intoxication,” she added.
After drinking even a modest amount of alcohol, children are more likely than adults to experience a dangerous drop in blood sugar, which can make them lethargic starting about six to 10 hours after consumption, Dr. Calello said.
Ingesting sanitizer can also irritate the throat or stomach, especially if they are formulated with isopropyl alcohol, which is an ingredient often found in rubbing alcohol, the experts said.
How can I prevent an accidental ingestion?
Keep all hand sanitizers out of children’s reach — and also out of sight, even if all you have is a small bottle that you keep tucked away in a handbag or a backpack.
“It’s important for parents to treat it like medications in the household,” Dr. Eggleston said.
You may be wondering if your family ought to avoid hand sanitizer entirely. While washing your hands is the most effective way to get rid of germs, the C.D.C. still recommends using hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus if soap and water aren’t readily available.