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Why is alcohol so dangerous for children? A four-year-old was found unconscious in bed, with an open bottle of rum beside her. She was taken to the emergency room right away. Even so, she died a few hours later. What happened?
Low blood sugar is a dangerous effect in children who drink alcohol. (This doesn't usually happen to healthy adults who drink alcohol.) Low blood sugar can cause seizures and coma, because the brain doesn't get enough glucose. If blood sugar drops too low, it can be fatal.
Alcohol affects the central nervous system. Children who drink alcohol can act drunk, just like adults do. They might stagger when they walk, speak without making sense, or seem sleepy. They might vomit because alcohol can irritate the stomach. Breathing and heart rate might slow down to a dangerous level. Blood pressure drops. These children can pass out and even die.
Too much alcohol is bad for anyone. But for young children, it causes problems that most people don't expect. This is true for alcohol from any source, but the most likely source is beverage alcohol. That means ethanol, found in beer, wine, hard liquor, and other alcoholic drinks.
The amount of alcohol poisonous to children varies. Different beverages contain different amounts of alcohol. A child's age and weight make a difference, too. Alcohol is absorbed quickly from the stomach into the bloodstream. The bottom line: small amounts of alcohol can harm children, much smaller than the amounts that adults can tolerate.
Ethanol is found in products other than beverage alcohol, including mouthwash, some facial cleansers, hair products, and hand sanitizer. Again, the amount that is poisonous to children varies. But no matter the source, the problems are the same: too much alcohol compared to a child’s body weight can cause poisoning.
Lock up your alcoholic beverages. Empty out beer cans, wine glasses, and drinks glasses before children can get to them. Store your mouthwash and alcohol-containing cosmetics and cleansers out of sight and reach.
If a child swallows alcohol, remove the container and use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control right away at 1-800-222-1222.. You will need to answer the following questions:
- the name of the product;
- how much is missing;
- how long ago it happened;
- the child's age and weight;
- whether the child is having any symptoms;
- your telephone number to stay in touch with you.
With this information, the webPOISONCONTROL® tool or the poison specialist will figure out if the child took a poisonous amount. If the child may have swallowed a dangerous amount, you'll be sent to the hospital. Your child's blood sugar will be measured. IV's might be needed. Pulse, blood pressure, and breathing will be checked to be sure they are not dropping too low. Again, Poison Control will stay in touch with the emergency room to provide treatment advice as needed.
Be sure webPOISONCONTROL® is one of your browser favorites, download the webPOISONCONTROL® app, and be sure the Poison Control phone number is on or near every phone in your home: 1-800-222-1222.
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Bronstein AC, Spyker DA, Cantilena LR, Rumack BH, Dart RC. 2011 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS): 29th Annual report. Clinical Toxicology. 2012;50:911-1164.