Over the last decade, reports have surfaced of children and teens rushed to the ER after swallowing enough alcohol-based hand sanitizer to become legally drunk. Now data collected by the Georgia Poison Center confirms that these incidents are not only widespread, they’ve been rising steadily.

Over the past five years, 85,000 calls to poison control centers nationwide have involved children and hand sanitizers, according to the report. Calls about possible hand sanitizer poisoning in kids under 12 have jumped nearly 400 percent, from about 3,200 in 2010 to more than 17,000 in 2014.

“Kids are getting into these products more frequently, and unfortunately, there's a percentage of them going to the emergency room," Georgia Poison Center director Gaylord Lopez, PharmD, told CNN.

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The fruity flavors available in many hand sanitizers appear to attract young children who don’t realize the dangers of drinking them, experts say. And alcohol-based hand sanitizers contain a high percentage of alcohol — from 45 percent to 95 percent — so it takes only one or two squirts to develop alcohol poisoning.

The alcohol in one 2-ounce purse-size container of sanitizer, for example, is equivalent to four shots of hard liquor, according to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

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Lopez told reporters that some older children are using hand sanitizers to get drunk on purpose, or on a dare from friends. Younger children, he says, are attracted to fruit-flavored sanitizers because they taste good. Six-year-old Nhaijah Russell of Gwinnett County, had to be taken to the ER when she was slurring her words and unable to walk after swallowing two or three squirts of a “yummy” fruit-flavored hand sanitizer that tasted like strawberry, CNN reported. Because she fell and hit her head, the hospital kept her overnight to watch for signs of brain trauma.

The Georgia Poison Center and patient educator Cheryl Franco, RN, of the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, recommends parents take the following precautions around alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Don’t buy hand sanitizers that smell fragrant or sweet.
  • Keep all hand sanitizers secured and away from your child.
  • Use only a pea-sized amount to sanitize hands.
  • Always supervise your children if they’re putting on hand sanitizer.
  • Teach your children to rub their hands together until the hand sanitizer dries. If their hands are still wet, air dry them.
  • Remind children not to suck their thumbs or put their fingers in their mouth after applying the gel.
  • Put away any alcohol-based wipes because your child might suck on them.
  • Consider buying hand sanitizer without any alcohol in it.
  • If you think your child has ingested any amount of hand sanitizer, call your poison control center immediately.

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Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.