Young Children Accidentally Getting Drunk on Hand Sanitizers

Since 2010, poison control center hotlines across the United States have seen a nearly 400 percent increase in calls related to children younger than 12 ingesting hand sanitizers that contain alcohol, according to new analysis by the Georgia Poison Center.

CNN reports that a Georgia six-year-old swallowed three or four squirts of a seemingly innocuous liquid hand sanitizer at school. She said it tasted like strawberries. The sanitizer contained enough alcohol to make the girl dangerously drunk. She was taken to the emergency and arrived there slurring her words and unable to walk.

Dr. Gaylord Lopez, the Georgia Poison Center’s director, said, “Kids are getting into these products more frequently, and unfortunately, there’s a percentage of them going to the emergency room.” The amount of alcohol in hand sanitizers ranges from 45 to 95 percent. (By comparison, wine and beer contain about 12 percent and 5 percent alcohol, Lopez said.) Ingesting even small amounts—as little as two or three squirts in some cases—can cause alcohol poisoning in a small child.

Alcohol poisoning can cause confusion, vomiting and drowsiness. In severe cases, a child can stop breathing.

The Georgia girl’s blood-alcohol level was .179, twice what’s considered legally drunk in an adult, according to Dr. Chris Ritchey, who treated her in the emergency room at Gwinnett Medical Center near Atlanta, CNN reports. Doctors said she had fallen and hit her head, and they kept her overnight at a nearby children’s hospital to watch for signs of brain trauma.

Dr. Lopez said 3,266 hand sanitizer cases related to young children were reported to poison control centers in 2010. In 2014, the number increased to 16,117 cases. Last week, Lopez sent a letter to Georgia’s school systems warning about children drinking hand sanitizer. He explained that some children drink it intentionally in order to get drunk, while others do it on a dare from friends. Still others, he said, drink sanitizer because it has an appealing scent.

“A kid is not thinking this is bad for them,” Lopez said. “A lot of the more attractive [hand sanitizers] are the ones that are scented. There are strawberry, grape, orange-flavored hand sanitizers that are very appealing to kids.”

Lopez recommends parents and teachers store hand sanitizers containing alcohol out of reach of children and supervise its use. Children should use small amounts. He said non-alcohol based products or sanitizing wipes can also be used. The American Association of Poison Control Centers recommends that parents not buy hand sanitizers that smell sweet and would be appealing to children. Where possible, experts say, it’s best to wash hands with soap under running water and reserve hand sanitizers for situations where soap and water aren’t available.

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