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Shampoo, foam bath, all-purpose cleaner: Risks for adults, too

11/2002, 03.05.2002

New information pamphlet for health care and cleaning staff in hospitals and homes

Shower gel, foam bath, shampoo, all-purpose cleaner, disinfectant, liquid detergent - for older, confused people all these products can constitute a risk. This is demonstrated by the medical notifications about cases of poisonings which have been collected and published by the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine since 1990.

The main cause for cases of poisoning in adults through household chemicals is, aside from attempted suicides, confusion which is a symptom of Alzheimer's or other neurological and psychiatric diseases. Confused people can mistake a bottle of shampoo, foam bath or household cleaner for a beverage bottle. It even happened that a patient in a clinic drank from a bottle containing a highly concentrated disinfectant.

In this context some important aspects have to be borne in mind. Confused people or people with slower reactions can no longer interrupt an action, as a reflex, once it has started like children or younger adults can. They do not immediately spit out the damaging product but swallow it or even drink more of it. This means that they take in larger amounts of damaging substances than small children do.

Furthermore, older people often lose some of their sense of smell or taste which means they do not have important protection mechanisms. Sometimes, confused people have lost the ability to differentiate between tasty, aromatic or inedible food and drink.

However, even the intake of smaller amounts of some disinfectants can already constitute a health risk. This could be because the mucous membrane of the oesophagus, stomach and intestines in older people is no longer as resistant to damaging substances as that of younger people. Considerable damage to the oesophagus and stomach was observed when an older patient had only swallowed small amounts of a cleaning product.

There is another risk for older people compared with small children. Whereas small children are not normally left alone for long by the people looking after them, older people - in hospital, old people's institutions or in their own homes - are not constantly under observation. For that reason, poisonings are frequently not discovered until much later.

The consequences for the people concerned are very painful and unpleasant and they must be given medical or emergency medical attention as soon as possible. There are frequent cases of severe damage to the mucous membrane in the mouth, oesophagus and stomach following the intake of cleaning agents or disinfectants but also incidences of pneumonia following inadvertent ingestion.

The Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine advises that cleaning agents and detergents be locked away safely in households in which confused people live similar to the procedure adopted in hospitals or in households with small children. Furthermore, when shopping only those bottles of shampoo, shower gel or foam bath should be purchased from which it is not possible to drink. Closures for soap dispensers are well suited as are many other modern design closures.

For the health care and cleaning staff in hospitals, nursing homes and old people's homes, the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine has published a pamphlet. It provides useful information on how to prevent poisonings of confused, older people. The pamphlet is available in German, Croatian, Polish, Russian, Serb and Turkish. It can be ordered in writing or by fax free of charge from the Press and Public Relations Office of BgVV (Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine), Thielallee 88-92, 14195 Berlin, Fax: 01888-412-4970

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