In today's world of heightened concerns over the spread of germs combined with our need for speed and convenience—alcohol-based hand sanitizers seem like the perfect solution! Alcohol has been used for its antiseptic properties since the 1300s, and is known to kill 99.9 percent of all bacteria. These days, it is packaged in many different sizes: from large dispensers, commonly seen in hospitals or office buildings, to pocket-sized containers easy enough to throw into a purse, diaper bag or gym bag to sanitize on the go. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are now a classroom or office staple. It's a quick, convenient way to kill germs, and reduce the spread of nasty winter colds when there is limited access to soap and water.
Most of the products on the market today contain between 60 and 95 percent ethyl or isopropyl alcohol by volume, and in many cases, are combined with fragrances that leave a pleasant scent behind. Unfortunately, these fragrances can make them very attractive to curious youngsters—as evidenced by a new study that was recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and ingestion can lead to serious adverse effects.
The study found that during a four year span between 2011 and 2014, more than 70,000 hand sanitizer exposures in children under the age of 12 were reported to poison centers nationwide. Children under the age of 5 accounted for 91 percent of these cases, and symptoms ranged from vomiting and stomach upset to coma or seizures in the more serious cases. Due to differences in metabolism in infants and young children versus older children and teens, children under the age of 5 years are more likely to develop complications such as hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, from alcohol intoxication. Other symptoms consistent with alcohol toxicity in youngsters include nausea, vomiting, decreased breathing, drowsiness, and stumbling.
Interestingly, the study also showed that children between the ages of 6 and 12 years were more likely to report intentional ingestions of alcohol hand sanitizers, and to have more adverse effects and worse outcomes than younger children. Exposures also seem to be seasonal, with fewer exposures being reported over the summer. This seems to indicate that older children might be intentionally misusing or abusing alcohol hand sanitizers, and are more likely to experiment while they're in school, and among their peers.
As with most of the issues we address, the best way to avoid these kinds of exposures is keeping alcohol-based hand sanitizers up and out of the way of young children, even if it means unclipping it from the diaper bag, or keeping your purse on a high shelf so they can't access it from your handbag. If you have an older child, talk to them about the risks associated with drinking hand sanitizer, whether they're doing it on a dare, or as a way of getting drunk.
Finally, don't forget—you still have the option to wash with old-fashioned soap and water, which is still just as effective at killing germs as using hand sanitizer! Should your child still manage to get into one of these alcohol-based hand sanitizers, don't hesitate to call the Philadelphia Poison Control Center, at 1-800-222-1222, where a specially trained pharmacist or nurse will be happy to answer your questions.