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April 27th, 2012
06:33 PM ET

Hand sanitizer: The new vodka for teens?

There's a new trend among teens looking for a buzz, doctors say, and it surrounds an unlikely household item designed to keep us germ-free: ethanol-based hand sanitizer.

Teenagers are using it this stuff to get high, according to health officials. Poison control centers nationwide say reports are on the rise.

The big issue here is the alcohol content, says Dr. Robert J. Geller, a medical toxicologist and Emory University pediatrician.

He says these sanitizers "are actually products that are 60% ethanol which means they are 120 proof," and "if you drink 2 ounces of it, it's like drinking 3 ounces of 80-proof tequila."

In California, where word of the trend first surfaced, there have been reports of 60 teenagers exposed since 2010, says Dr. Cyrus Rangan, toxicologist and assistant medical director of California Poison Control.

In recent months L.A. County doctors noticed an increase in cases, so last week they asked the California Poison Control Center to run numbers to see if data matched their instincts.

But nationwide statistics haven't been compiled, so CNN asked the  American Association of Poison Control Centers check their database.

Turns out the number of cases around the country are going up too.

Last year there were 622 calls involving cases where teenagers reported exposure to ethanol-based hand sanitizer, according to the AAPCC.  So far this year, they've already received 203 calls.

The specifics of each case aren't known, but overall, "77% of teen exposures to hand sanitizers were oral; the rest were mainly the eye and skin," says Loreeta Canton, spokeswoman for the AAPCC.

None of the reports involving hand sanitizers resulted in the deaths of young people, although one 2011 report involved a teen "with major effects that were life-threatening," according to the AAPCC.

Also in 2011, there were 14 teens with "moderate effects"requiring treatment that were not life-threatening and 122 cases of teens with "minor symptoms" that were "minimally bothersome and generally resolved rapidly," the AAPCC says.

So far this year, poison centers have received hand sanitizer reports of one incident that was "life threatening or resulted in disability or disfigurement," one incident that "required treatment, but was not life threatening" and 48 which were "minimally bothersome and were resolved rapidly."

For teens there can be serious consequences, says Geller, from sedation, to vomiting, to slowed breathing, "it really depends on how much they take and how often they are doing this."

Dr. Jennifer Shu, a CNN consultant and Atlanta pediatrician, says this is not a new concept for teens, it's just a new product for them to try. She says, "when used the wrong way, a lot of these things can have unintended consequences."

Ethanol can interfere with normal body functioning and side effects can range from sedation,  loss of coordination, and reaction timing, warns Dr.Carl Baum, a pediatric emergency physician and a medical toxicologist. "Too much ethanol can lead someone to have dangerous drops in blood sugar," just like drinking too much alcohol.

Teens are being exposed through friends and finding recipes online to help make it more palatable, Rangan says. Some teens even add ingredients to separate the alcohol from the rest of the gel while some dilute it down.

Drinking hand sanitizer poses the same risks as drinking alcohol for kids, says Rangan. "Regard it like you would regard any kind of medication in your house and monitor the amount in your house." He suggests parents use foam sanitizers which might be a little less appealing for a teenager to use in a recreational way.

"I think it's just because of the easy accessibility," he says,  "teens who are showing behaviors of intentionally taking hand sanitizer in an effort to get the alcohol high need to be evaluated for why are they doing that, and is this a symptom of a larger problem of substance abuse."

For more information on alcohol abuse and kids visit Elizabeth Cohen's "Empowered Patient" at CNN.com.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.