New CDC Report Reveals More Kids Are Drinking Hand Sanitizer

Blog Hand Sanitizer Craft

Dr. Blake Froberg, MD, a pediatrician at Riley Hospital, talks about the effects of hand sanitizer consumption in kids.

Thousands of American children are becoming sick from drinking alcohol-based hand sanitizers, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Almost all (95 percent) of the cases stemmed from drinking the sanitizers; rarer types of exposures were via inhalation or through the skin or eyes. And although most of the cases – 90 percent – involved children under 5, exposure among 6 to 12 year olds appears to have been intentional, leading the CDC researchers to conclude that many kids might be abusing hand sanitizer.  

Common health effects of ingesting hand sanitizer include drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and eye irritation. Younger kids are more susceptible to toxicity after ingesting hand sanitizers, but older children reported more adverse symptoms and worse outcomes, according to the CDC report. 

“It’s the same thing we see with exposure to alcohol in other forms,” says Dr. Blake Froberg, MD, a pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “The main effects are changes in mental status, which usually mean more sleepiness than usual, slurred speech and a lack of coordination, so they’ll have trouble walking and performing everyday tasks.”

In extreme cases, seizures, hypoglycemia, coma and respiratory depression were reported. Most (92 percent) of the cases involved alcohol-based sanitizer, which typically contains 60 to 95 percent of one of two types of alcohol: ethanol, the kind found in alcoholic spirits, or isopropyl alcohol, the kind used in rubbing alcohol. Both substances can get a person drunk, Dr. Froberg says, and because the alcohol in sanitizers is so high per volume, it only takes a few squirts of a gel hand sanitizer to cause alcohol poisoning.

Experts say the ubiquity of hand sanitizer is likely contributing to this trend of off-label experimentation. The CDC authors wrote that school administrators often ask students to carry hand sanitizer with them to help curb the spread of infection in class, and they noted that during the summer when kids aren’t in school, hand sanitizer-related poison control calls tend to drop.

Additionally, they say, it’s disturbingly easy to encounter videos on YouTube explaining how to distill hand sanitizer for the purpose of consumption.

The long-term effects of hand sanitizer abuse haven’t been studied, of course, but there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be similar to long-term abuse of ethanol, Dr. Froberg says.

Noting that the effects take years and years, he says long-term abuse can lead to liver damage and failure, inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis) and general atrophy of the brain. People who misuse alcohol for long periods of time can develop greater tolerance and experience withdrawal symptoms.

The bottom line: Dr. Froberg says hand sanitizers help limit the spread of infection so these products should remain available, but the public needs to become better educated about their potentially harmful effects.

-- By Virginia Pelley

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