Experts say keeping your liquor cabinet under lock and key may reduce the risk of kids getting their hands on alcohol. But there are other items in your home that contain alcohol — some of them higher proof than vodka.
“When most people think about alcohol at home, they think about the liquor, beer, wine and that kind of thing,” says Savithiri Ratnapalan, MBBS, MRCP, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and staff physician at The Hospital for Sick Children, both in Toronto. “But there are other products that have a reasonable amount of alcohol and pose a risk to toddlers and teenagers.”
Toddlers and young children typically ingest products containing alcohol accidentally, says Ratnapalan. They may sip mouthwash because it smells good. But even small amounts of alcohol in their tiny bodies can pose significant health dangers, up to and including death.
In most cases, teens ingest these on purpose, says Ratnapalan, as an alternative to beer or liquor.
Here are five common household items you may not realize contain alcohol. Keep them somewhere your kids can’t see or access them.
Cough syrup. Many teens turn to cough syrup because it contains both alcohol (its alcohol content rivals vodka’s) and dextromethorphan (or DXM), which can produce an instant high and also lead to breathing and heart complications. In a study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 4 percent of 12th graders reported using cough medicine to get high during the past 12 months, which is more than used hallucinogens, MDMA (ecstasy), oxycodone (such as OxyContin) or cocaine.
Mouthwash. Some brands of these liquid breath-fresheners contain about 20 or 25 percent alcohol. Mouthwash is designed to taste bad if swallowed to discourage people from drinking it, according to Newport Academy, a treatment center specializing in teen substance abuse. But that doesn’t stop everyone.
Hand sanitizer. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers pose a particularly high risk, as they contain 45 to 95 percent alcohol. In fact, one 2-ounce container of sanitizer has as much alcohol as four shots of hard liquor, according to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Calls to poison control centers about possible hand sanitizer poisoning in kids under 12 have jumped nearly 400 percent in the past five years, according to the Georgia Poison Center.
Perfume and cologne. These products may contain high levels of alcohol, ranging from 50 to 99 percent, says Ratnapalan. While some children have gotten alcohol poisoning after drinking perfumes, these types of emergencies are rare because perfumes generally taste pretty awful.
However, a study published in the medical journal The Lancet showed that in Russia, almost half of working-age men are killed by alcohol abuse, with some of them consuming cologne due to its high alcohol content. Russian men who drank cologne for alcohol were nine times more likely to die than those who drank liquor.
Windshield wiper fluid and antifreeze. These products have seriously injured and killed many teens, who knowingly or unknowingly consume them. An 18-year-old died after drinking methanol she thought was vodka while at a party, according to the Toronto Star. Windshield wiper fluid contains methanol and antifreeze contains ethylene glycol — and they contain a large amount of these alcohols, as well as other chemicals that can be fatal if swallowed.
Parents should talk to their kids about the dangers of ingesting products like these, Ratnapalan says. “It’s important to have an open discussion about it.”