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Think your toddler won’t eat hand sanitizer? One Mother’s Cautionary Tale


Think your toddler won’t eat hand sanitizer? One Mother’s Cautionary Tale


Over the last year since the pandemic began, we have come to see bottles and dispensers of hand sanitizer everywhere—they are now a normal part of our daily lives. Unfortunately, many hand sanitizer products smell “yummy,” and come in packaging that to a small child, look just like a candy, food or drink product. Over the course of the pandemic, this has led to a marked increase of children being poisoned from eating hand sanitizer. The IWK Regional Poison Centre alone has an increased number of calls about kids eating hand sanitizer, and 91% of these poison exposures happened in the patient’s own home.


Are you doubtful that a child would actually EAT hand sanitizer? Our own Health Promotion Specialist with Child Safety Link, Chantal, mother of 3, wants you to reconsider this, because it happened to her own family. We thank Chantal for sharing her story below:


I can’t say I ever fully realized the magnitude of the phrase “It can happen to anyone” or even “it only takes a second” until I had children of my own. Then and only then did I learn just how true these statements are. I experienced my first “close call” as a parent several years ago, when my oldest daughter was two and a half. She was playing with some toys on the floor at home and I ran to the kitchen to grab something. I was only gone for a few seconds, but when I returned to the room, I was immediately hit with the strong odour of vanilla hand sanitizer. My daughter was next to my open purse on the floor and the small bottle of hand sanitizer lay beside it, empty. My heart began to race as I wondered how much of it she may have swallowed.


Because of my work in children’s injury prevention, I knew just how poisonous a product like hand sanitizer could be for a child if swallowed. Some of the more serious effects can include severe drowsiness, intoxication, and low blood sugar, to name a few. Yet, here I was – standing in front of my own child, unsure whether or not she just swallowed some down. Although she didn’t show any symptoms such as drowsiness or vomiting, the smell was so overpowering and the small bottle of sanitizer was now empty, I didn’t overthink it and reached for my phone. I immediately called the IWK Regional Poison Centre hot line.


The Certified Specialist in Poison Information (they’re called CSPIs in short) calmly asked me a few demographic questions to start, like my first name and where I was calling from, before asking me about what happened. I explained that I found an empty small bottle of hand sanitizer near my 2-year-old and wasn’t sure if she had swallowed any. Right off the bat, the CSPI talking to me set my mind at ease with her calm demeanor. She reassured me that while these products often smell good enough to tempt children to eat them, they actually taste terrible, so the likelihood of my little girl swallowing some in any large quantity was unlikely. If anything, she again reassured me that my child probably took a tiny lick before squeezing it out – hence the overpowering smell. Since neither one of us could be certain that was in fact the case, she proceeded to walk me through what to watch for over the next few hours of closely monitoring her. She said to keep an eye out for any signs of extreme tiredness, fever, or throwing up. I also watched for an allergic reaction from the contact on her young, delicate skin. In the event that any one of these presented itself, the CSPI recommended I go directly to the IWK Emergency Room for further assessment. Thankfully, none of these further symptoms presented themselves, and my little girl was fine.


I share my own personal story for several reasons. First and foremost, children act fast and poisons can act even faster – if you can believe it. Not once did I realize that I had left something potentially poisonous within reach of my little girl’s tiny hands, nor did I ever think she would take it and try it. Now I realize that kids can be tempted by the contents of a purse and I know to keep mine zipped up and tucked away, out of reach.


Secondly, there can be a lot of fear and worry, not to mention guilt and embarrassment when you find yourself in a position like I did, which can and has kept people from calling the IWK Regional Poison Centre. Trust me when I say: that there is absolutely no reason at all to feel this way, and/or hesitate to dial that number. Indeed, my situation could have been much worse, and involved a much more serious and toxic substance. However, the support and reassurance you receive remains the same, and in those moments of sheer worry and panic, there is nothing I needed more. CSPIs also have access to a host of other resources in the form of help and support they can direct you to should you need it. So please, take my word and do not delay calling even if you know or even suspect that someone in your household may have swallowed or come in contact with a poison. Time is truly of the essence when dealing with small kids and poisons.


Thirdly, March 21-27th is National Poison Prevention Week and this year CSL and our partners at the IWK Poison Centre are sharing the message that poison prevention is (literally) in YOUR hands. Together, we are encouraging each household to develop a plan which includes what you will do in the event of a poisoning emergency*, and how to create safe storage for poisonous substances in your home. We even encourage involving any older children in your household in the creation of your plan, to ensure the messaging is well understood, and to post your plan in a central location in your home so that everyone knows where to see it. For an idea of how to create your own plan and for other helpful resources and materials, please visit www.childsafetylink.ca


Hand Sanitizer Safety Tips:


So what can you do to keep your hands sanitized AND children safe? We recommend the following:

  • Avoid buying/using products that appeal to children or that could be mistaken for a candy, food or water product.
  • Always supervise use of hand sanitizer for young children, and make sure their hands are dry before they touch food or put their hands in their mouths.
  • Use only Health Canada approved hand sanitizers.
  • Do not use on broken skin (i.e. cuts) to prevent the alcohol from being absorbed.
  • Talk to older children about safe hand sanitizer use.
  • Always keep hand sanitizer products away from small children.


If you know or even suspect that your child has swallowed hand sanitizer, call the IWK Regional Poison Centre at 1-800-565-8161 or (902)470-8161 (in Nova Scotia or PEI. In New Brunswick, call 911.) 

The IWK Regional Poison Centre is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as a confidential source of information on poisons and poison exposures. The staff at the Poison Centre includes nurses and pharmacists, supported by on-call physicians, who are specialists in poison information, including medication and non-medication related inquiries. The Poison Centre provides service for all ages (adults and children).