The Medical Minute: Detergent Packets Can Pose Poisoning Dangers

HERSHEY, Pa. – They’re bite sized, brightly colored, and look like candy to many children – and they were responsible for nearly 3,000 calls to poison control centers in the first three months of this year.

Rates of poisoning from laundry and dishwasher detergent packets are steadily increasing – namely among those ages 5 and under – often resulting in serious injury.

“The work of children is learning and exploring the world around them,” said Amy Morgan, manager of the Pediatric Trauma Injury Prevention Program at Penn State Children’s Hospital. “So a young child will see something brightly colored like that, be attracted to it, want to explore it, and the first place they put it is their mouth.”

That’s when trouble starts.

“The packets are water soluble, so as soon as they hit saliva, they start to dissolve and all of that detergent either gets digested into their stomachs or aspirated into their lungs,” Morgan said.

Serious medical problems can result because the detergent in those packets is so highly concentrated.

“Children become much sicker than those who ingest a small amount of laundry detergent, say, in powdered form,” Morgan said. In some cases, children become unresponsive or lapse into a coma. In rare cases, death can occur.

A study published this week in the journal Pediatrics blames the ingestion of detergent packets for a 17 percent increase in calls to poison control centers from 2013 to 2014.

The study’s authors urge parents of small children to not have the detergent packets anywhere in their homes – and Morgan agrees.

“We can’t watch our children every second of every day, no matter how vigilant we are,” she said. “Kids move quickly and can slip out from under our watchful eyes in a matter of seconds, and that’s all it takes for something bad to happen.”

Those who choose to use the packets for the sake of convenience must store them in a closed, sealed container on a high shelf out of the reach of children, she says.

Morgan suggests that all parents keep the Poison Help Line number handy. It is 1-800-222-1222. In case of a life threatening emergency from ingestion, call 911 immediately.

Learn more:
The Medical Minute: Poison prevention tips for spring

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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