In recent years, there has been an increase in exposures to laundry detergent packets. Typically, ingestion of laundry detergents has not been considered particularly dangerous. The same is true today, with some important exceptions. As an alternative to those large, heavy bottles of laundry detergents, several manufactures have started to make small detergent packets or pods. These packets are lightweight, individual doses and are thus easier to store and use, as well as avoiding spills. The packets are often colorful, and resemble a toy or candy. Consequently, they are often consumed by children.
Following ingestion of these small, colorful packets, children have been sicker than what was typically seen following the ingestion of liquid laundry detergents. Children have been sedated, to the point where some have required a breathing tube. The sedation that is observed is primarily observed with a type of detergent called a non-ionic detergent. Unlike some stronger detergents, these packets are unlikely to cause a tissue injury. It is more common for children to develop mild irritation of the airway and digestive tract.
In general, when children are exposed to these products, they do well. And even if a child becomes symptomatic, after a few hours of good supportive care in a hospital, they are expected to recover.
The most important step in avoiding a problem is prevention. Keep these products and other chemicals out of the reach of children. If your child is exposed, call your regional poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 for guidance.
Michael Levine, MD