Hand sanitizer is available just about everywhere you go, especially during the flu and cold season. I’ve used it myself to wipe down grocery cart handles and while visiting friends and family members in the hospital. Schools have also become very conscientious about spreading germs and many have sanitizer dispensers in classrooms and halls. Lots of families make sure that sanitizers are available in the home to help keep bacteria and viruses at bay.
While gel hand sanitizers are convenient, they are also contributing to a rise in kids getting sick after ingesting the products, according to a new government report.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers tracked illnesses from 2011 to 2014 for children aged 12 and under. The investigators believe some kids in the higher age range may be drinking sanitizers because of the products' high alcohol content.
"Older children [aged 6-12 years] were more likely to report intentional ingestion and to have adverse health effects and worse outcomes than were younger children, suggesting that older children might be deliberately misusing or abusing alcohol hand sanitizers," wrote the team led by Dr. Cynthia Santos, of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health.
Typical hand sanitizers contain 60 to 90 percent ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, as well as scents that children might find appealing.
"Recent reports have identified serious consequences" with ingesting hand sanitizers, the CDC team said. These include breathing difficulties, excessive acid buildup in tissues, and even coma.
So, what’s going on with kids and hand sanitizers? The researchers said that answer might depend on the age of the child. Most of these exposures may have been accidental, with 91 percent occurring in kids, aged 5 and under. But about 6,200 incidents affected kids aged 6 to 12, and these have a much higher odds of being intentional ingestions, the research showed.
Santos noted that ingestion of alcohol sanitizers was also associated with worse symptoms in kids.
While vomiting and eye irritation were the most common symptoms, much more serious events were also recorded, including five cases of coma and three cases involving seizures, Santos' group said.
What’s influencing this change? According to the CDC team, in recent years many schools have installed gel hand sanitizer dispensers, or requested that children bring their own hand sanitizer gels to school.
Santos' group pointed to "a study examining Texas poison center data from 2000 to 2011 [that] found that, among 385 adolescents who ingested hand sanitizer, 35 percent of ingestions occurred at school.
The CDC team noted that "hand washing with soap and water is the recommended method of hand hygiene in non-health care settings" such as the home and school. Hand washing is a safe, effective germ-killer, they said, without the risks to children that can come with hand sanitizers.
If hand sanitizers must be used, the researchers said adult supervision and proper storage -- away from children's reach when not in use -- could help lower poisoning risks.
Hand sanitizers play a role in making sure that germs aren’t spread or for a quick cleanup when water and soap aren’t available, but as with most chemicals, they need to be kept out of the mouths of young children. Older kids may not understand the dangers of ingesting products with alcohol listed as an ingredient. What may seem like a lark could put them in a coma. A discussion about drinking alcohol and the facts about the different types of alcohol – such as ethanol or isopropyl alcohol – may save them from a trip to the ER.
The report was published in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality.