Hand sanitizer has grown in popularity in recent years and can be found in nearly every household, hospital and classroom. It is widely used as a convenience product because it kills germs without soap and water. Families who use hand sanitizers, along with frequent hand washing, can dramatically reduce the illnesses they experience. But the high alcohol content found in most hand sanitizers can pose a risk if used inappropriately.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers contain ethyl alcohol suspended in a gel. Many sanitizer brands claim that their products kill 99.9 percent of germs. In order to kill a variety of bacteria and viruses, the product must contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Consuming 1.5 ounces of a hand sanitizer is about the equivalent of drinking a shot of hard liquor. Some varieties contain up to 95 percent alcohol, while others are made with isopropyl alcohol, even more potent than ethanol.
In 2007, a viral email described a parent’s nightmare: A 4-year-old was lethargic and incoherent. After a battery of tests, doctors discovered she was suffering from alcohol poisoning brought on by ingesting hand sanitizer. The child recovered. Despite some inaccuracies, the story was essentially true, Snopes.com reported.
This story notwithstanding, the average child will not suffer alcohol poisoning from normal use of hand sanitizer. “It would take a 2-year old weighing 25 pounds approximately 2 teaspoons or 10-20 pumps of an average container to become intoxicated," says the Sanford Poison Center in South Dakota.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported nearly 12,000 cases of hand sanitizer ingestion in 2005. Most cases result in no adverse effects or only mild effects, such as nausea and vomiting. In rare cases, signs of intoxication including dizziness and slurred speech have been reported. There are no known child fatalities caused by accidental hand sanitizer ingestion. But hand sanitizer poses a significant risk to pets, particularly dogs that may chew open the container and ingest a significant amount of the substance.
Signs of Alcohol Poisoning
MayoClinic.com lists common symptoms associated with alcohol poisoning. Symptoms may include vomiting, irregular breathing, confusion, seizures, low body temperature and unconsciousness. If your child is exhibiting any of these symptoms and has possibly ingested an alcohol-based product, seek emergency medical care. Untreated, alcohol poisoning could be fatal.
Safety and Alternatives
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer should be treated as a toxic substance and stored accordingly. Keep it out of reach of children and pets, and do not allow young children to use it unattended. Avoid scented varieties, which may tempt children to taste. You may also want to consider replacing your hand sanitizer with a nonalcoholic variety or eliminating hand sanitizer altogether. Hand sanitizer is convenient but no more effective than traditional hand washing.