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caption: UW Medicine nurses use hand sanitizer after testing patients for coronavirus on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, at the University of Washington Northwest Outpatient Medical Center drive-through testing area on Meridian Avenue North in Seattle.
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UW Medicine nurses use hand sanitizer after testing patients for coronavirus on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, at the University of Washington Northwest Outpatient Medical Center drive-through testing area on Meridian Avenue North in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Health officials worry about accidental poisonings during outbreak

The health care system is working overtime to fight the coronavirus. But health officials are warning about another threat: an increased risk of accidental poisonings.

Meghan King is a public health educator at the Washington Poison Center. She explained the problem to KUOW’s Angela King:

Right now, we have school closures. People working from home. Social distancing. Stay at home orders. All of these public health measures to slow the spread of coronavirus. This has caused a lot of changes in our daily lives. People are spending more time at home, so they're around potential poisons a lot more than usual. They might also be distracted, especially if they're taking care of their kids or stressed, which can all lead to accidental poisonings.

So here at the Washington Poison Center, we are actually seeing an increase in calls to our poison hotline. We're seeing spikes in calls about substances that are being used a lot right now, like household cleaning products and hand sanitizer.

People are trying to keep things as clean and disinfected as possible right now. Anything in particular you're worried about people using?

Cleaning products have always been among the top substances that people call us about. But during this outbreak, people are using them more. They might have more products in their home right now. Things that we are concerned about at this moment is that folks might be mixing cleaners and that can create hazardous gases -- mixing bleach with other cleaners, that's a big culprit of hazardous gas. Or, you know, people might be distracted and they're not reading labels closely. For example, they might not realize that a product needs to be diluted. And using a cleaner at a higher concentration than what's recommended can be pretty dangerous.

So no matter what type of cleaner you're using, we recommend that you always follow the directions closely and be sure to store them out of sight and out of reach of any kids. Hand sanitizers are another big thing that's being used right now. So we've actually received double the number of calls in last year about hand sanitizer.

Are people ingesting it?

Yes. We're going to see this a lot with kids, kids who might lick their hands after it's been applied or they might try drinking it. It's concerning because hand sanitizer has a very high alcohol content. And so it can be really harmful for a young kid that gets into that.

There are rumors about off-label prescription drugs that might treat the coronavirus. What about that specific issue?

There are clinicians and there are researchers who are trying to study some substances. And people might have heard of some hospitals using different medications, but all of those substances are being overseen to ensure safety. We want you to know that there are no approved medications, supplements, vitamins or any other kind of substance that will prevent or treat the virus. There are products out there that claim to do so, but they could have harmful or even life-threatening side effects.

If you are worried about a chemical or medication, you can call the Poison Helpline, 1-800-222-1222. It's free, confidential, available in over 200 languages, and open 24 hours a day.