During this time of COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol-based hand sanitizers have become indispensable part of our lives. One of the health protocols to fight COVID-19 is to keep hands clean by frequently washing with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers to disinfect the hands. Nowadays, hand sanitizers are abundantly and easily available in the market. At this moment, when it is used so extensively, one must also be aware of its harmful effects.
The various hazards include the following:
- If someone goes near fire immediately after applying hand sanitizers, there is high risk of getting burn injury.
- If kept close to any fire source, sanitizers may catch fire.
- Keeping it inside vehicles in hot weather exposes it to sun rays, which increases risk for spontaneous combustion.
- Repeated and excessive use of hand sanitizers can destroy the microbes and protective bacteria present in skin – causing health hazards like skin problems, irritation in eyes, conjunctivitis, nausea, vomiting etc.
- The most dangerous hazard is its addictive potential.
There are cases of hand sanitizer addiction all over the world, especially during this era when they are used extensively. There are cases of abuse in the form of drinking and inhaling hand sanitizers. This is more common among children, adolescents and younger age groups. Hand sanitizer abuse potential is high as these are cheap, widely available, and there is no age limit for their purchase.
This abuse is highly dangerous as it may cause Alcohol poisoning, coma and even death. Hand sanitizers should never be consumed orally. There are many instances of people addicted to alcohol drinking hand sanitizers to get high and resulting in various adverse outcomes.
Abusing by inhaling hand sanitizers is also observed. Initially people who abuses starts liking the smell of sanitisers in their hands. Gradually the purpose of use shifts from sanitizing the hands to enjoying the smell. They frequently rub the sanitizer in hands to smell it. Gradually they start feeling a high and have temptation to smell it repeatedly. More they stay away from it they develop a strong craving to smell it.
There are different ways by which abusers inhale the sanitizers including:
- Huffing: the content is put in clothes, which are then pressed to the mouth.
- Bagging: the contents are poured into a plastic bag, and inhaled through the bag opening.
- Sniffing or snorting: The content is taken in hands and sniffed, or sniffed directly from the container.
- Spraying: Spraying the substance directly into nose or mouth.
The primary constituents of hand sanitizers are Ethyl alcohol and Isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is more potent than the ethanol used to produce alcoholic drinks. This potency is necessary to increase the sanitizing power of this alcohol-based product. They are meant for external use only. So abusing by taking in even a small amount of this sanitizer does more harm than drinking larger quantities of alcoholic drinks. The alcohol content along with other chemical ingredients present in the sanitizers are toxic and dangerous to the nervous system, cardio-pulmonary system and other internal organs of the body. Inhaling alcohol vapour causes a rapid and intense feeling of being high. People who inhale the vapour get drunk more quickly, because the vapours along with the other harmful chemicals enter the lungs and are immediately absorbed into bloodstream from the lungs, which then goes straight to the brain. They damage and kill brain cells and also injure lungs and other parts of respiratory system over time. Damage is observed more in teens and young adults as their brain are still in developing stages.
If a person abuses hand sanitizers, there will be certain changes in his or her behavior – such as excess pre-occupation with the sanitizer, smells it recurrently by various ways, purchases sanitizers frequently, smell of sanitizer comes from their nose, mouth, dress, etc. Along with the above habits, repeated and long term use may cause physical symptoms like headaches, migraine, nausea, vomiting, digestion problems, allergic reactions, slurred speech, running nose, sore throat, sinusitis, drowsiness, various respiratory problems, light headedness, giddiness, mood swings, memory problems, agitation, irritability, hallucinations, seizures, impaired judgment, loss of inhibition, etc. These damages may turn permanent in some of the affected individuals over time.
Managing the problem:
- To avoid the problem, discuss with children and teenagers about the proper way of using hand sanitizer, their abuse potential and ill-effects.
- Supervise children when they are using sanitizers.
- When schools and colleges will open, children should not be encouraged to carry their own hand sanitizers. Rather, hand washing should be encouraged. Set hand washing points at different places in the schools and colleges. Hand sanitizers should be kept at specific common places in the class, so that teachers and staffs can monitor their use safely.
- Refrain from leaving sanitizers inside the vehicles.
- Avoid hand sanitizer spray bottles as while spraying the sanitizer, fumes spread in the air which are directly inhaled by the person inadvertently.
- After working with chemicals, do not use sanitizers directly as there may be chemical reaction. Wash the hands first with soap and water.
- Do not go near any fire source (like cooking) immediately after applying hand sanitizers.
- All alcohol containing products such as hand sanitizers, wine, beer, hair tonic, face toners, etc. should be stored safely and out of reach of children.
- Awareness programs should be arranged to educate people, especially for young children.
- In labels of all hand sanitizer bottles, the manufacturer should mention the chemical composition as isopropanol instead of isopropyl alcohol. This will decrease the attraction of these sanitizers for potentially dangerous abuse.
- Hand sanitizers are not meant for physical hand washing as they cannot remove dirt and grime effectively.
- Encourage hand washing with soap and water.
- Seek professional help if anyone finds themselves or any close one abusing hand sanitizers. Treatment and counselling are available for all types of addictions.
Hand sanitizers are a useful product if used in a proper way. One should be sensible and rational while using it. One should be aware of the benefits as well as the harmful aspects of it. Addiction is a disease. A person starts any addiction by choice, but later it becomes a compulsion because he or she becomes physically and psychologically dependant on it. It is imperative to understand the harmful potential and take necessary precautions before it becomes a threat to the individual and society at large.