It's an important tool in the fight against COVID-19, but it's dangerous for kids. The BC Centre for Disease Control says it has seen an exponential increase in calls to poison control because of children ingesting hand sanitizer.

Distilleries, breweries and companies of all kinds have pivoted to making the alcohol-based product to keep up with pandemic demand, and more families are using hand sanitizer on a regular basis. Some of the packaging can be misleading – sanitizer is sometimes sold in beer cans and even water bottles – and Dr. Michael Rieder says that can be confusing for kids. 

"If it comes in something that children see people drinking from, then obviously a small child is going to think it's OK to drink it," Rieder said. 

He's a member of the Canadian Pediatric Society's Drug Therapy Committee, and says hand sanitizer poses a serious risk for children because it quickly lowers their blood sugar. 

"Children can get lethargic, they can be disoriented, they can lose consciousness – in extreme cases have seizures," he says. "So even a small ingestion can be significant in a little child." 

In January and February of this year, the BCCDC's poison control call centre saw less than two calls a week about kids under five consuming hand sanitizer. By April, that number had jumped to about seven a week. 

And grown ups aren't immune. Only about one call a week came in for adult consumption during the first two months of the year, but April saw an average of 3.5 every week. 

"The Canadian regulations say that to sell a hand sanitizer, it has to be at least 60 per cent alcohol," Dr. Rieder says. "There's a lot of alcohol, and it doesn't take much to significantly impact a small child." 

He says if you suspect someone has ingested hand sanitizer, call poison control right away. And don't hesitate if you have to go to the hospital. 

"I know in these days there's a reluctance to go to the emergency department. If the child needs to go to the emergency department, you go to the emergency department."

There are some things you can do to keep hand sanitizer safely in your home. The BCCDC says that if the package could be mistaken for a beverage, you can transfer the contents to a clean, dry, empty container – like a spray bottle – that doesn't look like a drink. If you can't do that, try replacing the cap with a pump. 

Make sure hand sanitizers are clearly labelled, and always store out of reach of kids, pets and people with dementia. 

When kids use the product, make sure they're supervised. And don't buy products that have glitter, are scented, or in any way could appeal to a child. 

If you or someone you know ingests hand sanitizer, call poison control right away at 1-800-567-8911.