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Is Drinking Hand Sanitizer Safe or Dangerous? Side Effects & Health Risks

California health authorities worried over teens getting drunk on hand sanitizer

Care for a shot of hand sanitizer? Apparently, a growing number of American teenagers do — and the odd but deadly new habit has already landed a number of them in hospital emergency rooms in Los Angeles this month.

The new trend has alarmed local public health officials so much that they held a press conference on April 24 at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, California.

The health experts say six teenagers have shown up in two San Fernando Valley emergency rooms in the last few months with alcohol poisoning after drinking hand sanitizer. But the experts say Los Angeles teenagers have only caught on more recently — it has been a national trend for the last few years.

While there were 16 countywide cases reported to California’s Poison Control since March 1, there have been over 2,000 cases in California since 2010, Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a pediatric medical toxicologist with Children’s Hospital, told reporters at the press conference. Dr. Rangan is also director of the Los Angeles county Department of Public Health’s Toxic Epidemiology Program

But why of all things, hand sanitizers? Liquid sanitizers are cheap and accessible to underage teens, says Helen Arbogast, an injury prevention coordinator for Children’s Hospital. It contains 62-percent ethyl alcohol — which becomes 120-proof after distillation.

“That’s like drinking several shots of hard liquor,” Dr. Rangan said.

Abrogast says that teenagers are using an extraction technique to distill and purify the alcohol from the sanitizer, enhancing the potency of the alcohol. The technique is found on the Internet.

And then, of course, teenagers throughout the ages have been creative about turning household items into things they can get a buzz off: cough syrup, mouthwash and even vanilla extract. Hand sanitizers are just the latest over-the-counter product being used to get a quick high.

Dangerous trend

Although there has only been a few cases, Dr. Rangan says it could signal a dangerous trend.
“This is a rapidly emerging trend,” he said.

Dr. Bill Mallon works in the emergency room at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center. He says he has seen many young people at the hospital with alcohol poisoning after drinking disinfectants.

“It doesn’t sound appealing, but you have to remember that kids don’t have access to alcohol so they’re very creative,” Mallon told local TV station KTLA.

The Los Angeles Times reports that:
• The dangerous trend is not unique to Los Angeles — the California Poison Control System has received 60 reports of teenagers drinking hand sanitizer since 2010.
• The vast majority of all the cases statewide were minor and treated at home, but about 50 of the youths went to a hospital or were referred to a hospital for treatment.
• “Since 2009 we can see on YouTube it’s in all regions of the country. We see it in the South, in the Midwest, in the East,” says injury prevention coordinator Abrogast.
• Officials began separately tracking hand sanitizer cases in 2010.

Dangerous habit

So far, none of the local cases has been fatal, but Dr. Rangan said the effects of drinking the product are similar to abusing liquor. Too much can cause coma, death or permanent brain damage.

Other health effects from drinking hand sanitizers include diarrhea, memory loss — and even blindness and irreversible organ damage.

KASA-TV reported recently that two homeless people in Albuquerque, New Mexico died after drinking a mix of distilled hand sanitizer and mouthwash.

“Just a spoonful can cause a problem,” Abrogast says. “It’s a concern for us. We’re going to be going to the high schools to talk about it.”

Right now, there are no restriction against teenagers under a certain age from buying sanitizer, similar to alcohol or cigarette restrictions. But Dr. Rangan says it could happen. “I would not be surprised if something like that happened down the road,” he said.

Younger children at danger, too

And if teenagers are at risk because their natural inclination to rebel prods them to drink the stuff on a dare or out of daring, younger children are also in danger of accidentally ingesting it because the product’s colors may look like juice or something sweet, Abrogast warns.

According to poison control service, part of the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Clinical Pharmacy, since 2010, there were:
• 147 cases of hand sanitizer poisoning involving children 6 to 12 years old
• 2,180 cases 0 to 5 years old
• These children were believed to have accidentally ingested the gel.

How can you prevent poisoning from hand sanitizers?
• Switch to non-alcohol sanitizers
• Or buy foam-based sanitizers, from which alcohol is harder to extract

Finally, WebMD has this reminder:
“Teens can be tempted to experiment with over-the-counter products because they are easy to access. They may feel like it’s ‘safer’ because the products are over-the-counter. Teens are also good at keeping such activities secret from their parents.”

“As parents, it is important to be on the lookout for risky behavior; maintain an open dialogue with your teen about drugs, including over-the-counter products; monitor how they are doing in school and their peer relationships; and take advantage of teachable moments like this one.”

How to handle gel alcohol poisoning
Bolstering Dr. Rangan’s claim that abusing hand sanitizing gels is a growing trend among teenagers, the Task Force on College Drinking — made up of college presidents, researchers and students from universities across the United States committed to address the dangers of college drinking — has a longstanding webpage on its site entitled ‘What Happens to Your Body When You Get Alcohol Poisoning?’

The task force was created by the U.S. National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1998.

On this page, the task force warns:
• Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing and the gag reflex, which prevents choking. A fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop these functions.
• Because alcohol irritates the stomach, it’s common for someone who drank excessive alcohol to vomit. But people who are intoxicated into unconsciousness can choke on vomit — causing death by asphyxiation.
• It’s dangerous to assume a person will be fine by sleeping alcohol off: A person’s blood alcohol concentration can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out.
• Even after a person stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body.

Critical signs of alcohol poisoning:
• Mental confusion, stupor, coma, or person cannot be roused.
• Vomiting.
• Seizures.
• Irregular breathing — 10 seconds or more between breaths
• Hypothermia or low body temperature, bluish skin color, paleness.
• Slow breathing — fewer than eight breaths per minute

What can happen if alcohol poisoning is left untreated?
• Victim chokes on his or her own vomit.
• Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops.
• Heart beats irregularly or stops.
• Hypothermia — low body temperature
• Hypoglycemia — too little blood sugar — leads to seizures.
• Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death.
• Even if the victim lives, an alcohol overdose can lead to irreversible brain damage.
• Rapid binge drinking — which often happens on a bet or a dare — is especially dangerous because the victim can ingest a fatal dose before becoming unconscious.

What should you do if you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning?
• Be aware that a person who has passed out may die.
• Know the danger signals.
• Do not wait for all symptoms to be present.
• If there is any suspicion of an alcohol overdose, call 911 for help. Don’t try to guess the level of drunkenness.

The task force’s take home message?
“Don’t be afraid to seek medical help for a friend who has had too much to drink. Don’t worry that your friend may become angry or embarrassed — remember, you cared enough to help. Always be safe, not sorry.”

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