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Alcohol: A Dangerous Poison for Children

The Bottom Line

Alcohol can be a dangerous poison for children. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and causes low blood glucose (sugar). Children who drink alcohol can have seizures and coma; they could even die. This is true of beverage alcohol (beer, wine, liquor) and alcohol found in mouthwash and other personal care products.

The Full Story

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
Clinical Toxicologist


For More Information

My Child Ate a Cigarette (The Poison Post®)

Tip of the Day: Clean up after the party

Tip of the Day: Parties


References

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.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • 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.

This Really Happened

A 2-year-old child found a bottle of vodka on a coffee table, removed the screw cap, and drank about two ounces. His father found him unconscious and called 911. When the paramedics arrived, the child was in a coma. The child was taken to the emergency room, where his blood alcohol level was very high, 248 mg/dL. The local hospital couldn't care for critically ill children; he was flown by helicopter to a hospital with an intensive care unit for children.

The child could not breathe on his own, so a breathing tube was put into his throat and he was put on a ventilator to breathe for him. He was given IV fluids and his blood glucose levels were checked every hour to be sure they didn't drop too low. The child remained in a coma for several hours.

By the next morning, his blood alcohol level had dropped to 16 mg/dL. He woke up and could breathe on his own. He made a full recovery and was discharged from the hospital the next day.