MountainView Hospital - February 02, 2018

You've gotta be kidding me. That's gotta be fake.

That's the understandable first reaction of many to the viral phenomenon dubbed the "Tide Pod Challenge."

Sad to say, it's real.

Prompted by internet dares, dozens of U.S. teenagers in recent weeks have popped liquid laundry detergent packets from a variety of manufacturers into their mouths just to see what happens, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC).

There have been 39 reported cases of teens intentionally ingesting laundry pods during the first 15 days of 2018, poison control center statistics show.

That's exactly as many cases reported for the entire year of 2016, and nearly three-quarters of the 53 intentional misuse cases reported to poison control in 2017, the AAPCC said.

“I don't understand the appeal of this challenge. Most people have at some point accidentally had soap or detergent in their eye or mouth, and neither of those are pleasant. Why would anyone deliberately replicate that sensation?” asked Dr. Kristina Domanski, a toxicologist at MountainView Hospital. “Apart from stating the obvious that this is neither funny nor cool, ingesting laundry pods is going to be unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst.”

The plastic skins of laundry pods are designed to dissolve on contact with water and automatically release the pods' contents. That means when kids pop a pod in their mouths, they're very likely going to receive a flooded spoonful of chemical cleansers.

"The contents of the laundry pods are typically more concentrated and can cause more serious effects,” explained Dr. Domanski. "If vomiting and somnolence occur together, aspiration becomes a risk. Ocular burns have been reported with eye exposures- this is a possibility if the pod bursts and some of the contents squirt into the eye, or if the eye is touched with contaminated hands."

Ingesting a detergent pod could potentially cause devastating long-term effects. If the detergent burns the esophagus, resulting in scarring, it narrows the passageway making it easier for food to get stuck.

At the very least, kids who stick a pod in their mouth will cough, gag and foam at the mouth. At worst, they could experience diarrhea and vomiting, chemical burns to their throat and airways, severe breathing problems, seizures and even a coma, poison control experts said.

"A study published in the journal Pediatrics (2014) found that 73.5% of exposures reported to Poison Control Centers involved children under the age of 3. The recent trend of teenagers ingesting packets is backed up by an increase in exposures reported to Poison Control Centers,” said Dr. Domanski.

When laundry pods first hit the market several years ago, experts were particularly concerned about young children trying to eat them. The pods are very colorful and look like candy.

Indeed, children aged 5 and under were far and away most affected by intentional and unintentional exposure to single-load liquid laundry packets in 2017, accounting for 10,583 of the total 12,299 cases reported to the nation's poison control centers.

"According to AAPCC data, Poison Control Centers handled 39 intentional laundry pod exposures in the 13 - 19 age group in 2016, and 53 cases in 2017,” said Dr. Domanski. “Numbers have increased to 140 cases in the same age group in the first four weeks of 2018."

The current media may focus on teenagers trying the challenge; however, many households have children of different ages. If the pods are accessible to teens, they may be found by younger children too, Dr. Domanski said.

"Keep the packets locked away and in a high place, out of reach of children. The same applies to other household cleaning products as well as potentially hazardous substances like insecticides and rodenticides,” said Dr. Domanski. “Don't store cleaning products in drinking bottles! Many cleaning products are brightly colored, and pouring them into a bottle that would otherwise contain a colorful sports drink is misleading and may result in an exposure."

If you have questions or concerns about the misuse or ingestion of a laundry packet, call the national poison help hotline immediately at 1-800-222-1222 for guidance. You can also text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your phone.

Don’t wait to call poison control if you detect any difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, foaming at the mouth or drooling, or seizures. Call 911 immediately.

More information

For more on laundry detergent pods, visit Consumer Reports.

The trend may sound funny to some teens, but eating dtergent pods can cause serious health problems like:

  • Coughing, gagging and foaming at the mouth
  • Burns to the skin, eyes, throat or esophagus
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe breathing problems
  • Siezures
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma

Call 911 immediately if you or someone you know has ingested a detergent pod.

Health problems after eating Tide Pods infographic