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Ethanol intoxication in children: Epidemiology, estimation of toxicity, and toxic effects

Carl R Baum, MD, FAAP, FACMT
Section Editor
Michele M Burns, MD, MPH
Deputy Editor
James F Wiley, II, MD, MPH


The epidemiology, pharmacokinetics, and estimation of toxicity of ethanol intoxication in children are reviewed here. Evaluation and management of pediatric ethanol exposure are discussed separately (table 1). (See "Ethanol intoxication in children: Clinical features, evaluation, and management".)


Despite its abuse potential, ethanol is broadly tolerated in a social context and is therefore ubiquitous in society. It is available in a multitude of alcoholic beverages but also concentrated in household products (eg, vanilla extract, mouthwash, perfume/cologne) (table 2).

Young children — Children under six years of age, particularly toddlers, often ingest ethanol when their exploratory behaviors lead them to unattended alcoholic beverages or to unsecured household products with high ethanol concentrations (table 2).

Thousands of ethanol exposures in children under six years of age are reported to poison control centers annually in the United States [1]. Ethanol-containing products other than alcoholic beverages (eg, perfumes, colognes, mouthwash, medicinals, ethanol based hand sanitizers) account for 85 to 90 percent of these exposures [1-5]. In many instances, these exposures result in little to no toxicity [6]. However, Infants and young children are prone to profound hypoglycemia, coma, and hypothermia despite ingesting relatively small amounts of ethanol [2,7-10]. Deaths have been reported [7].

Rarely, a caretaker may intentionally give ethanol to quiet an infant or young child or as part of a pattern of physical abuse [2,11].

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Apr 17, 2017.
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