Silica gel packets are the little squares labeled "DO NOT EAT." They keep your shoes, handbags, and electronics dry while in their packaging. Unfortunately, to toddlers and young kids, they look just like a sugar packet. Worst of all, they seem to be in everything these days.
My experience started with my husband shouting a choice word. Our son had found a small silica gel packet under the television cabinet and he poured the whole thing in his mouth. It all happened in a matter of seconds. So what happens if you eat silica gel? Here's everything I learned along with some expert advice from a pediatrics specialist.
1. Call Poison Control First
After we realized what he had done, we scooped out the remaining silica beads that my son had not swallowed and then raced to the urgent care clinic, only to be turned away. We then rushed to the emergency room. Turns out it was all for nothing.
I learned that when a child consumes anything poisonous, it's important to call Poison Control first. This is actually what the staff at the ER did upon our arrival.
2. Be Ready to Rush to the ER
We quickly learned that the type of silica gel that my son ate was non-toxic. Turns out, it is simply a choking hazard. However, had he eaten the beads in an indicating silica packet, which changes color when exposed to moisture, there would be great cause for concern.
3. The Types of Silica Gel and How to Tell the Difference
Silica gel is drying agent. It absorbs moisture. There are two types of silica gel -- indicating and non-indicating. Here is the important difference:
Non-Indicating Silica Gel
These silica gel packets are not considered poisonous. They are made with silicon dioxide, a non-toxic, naturally occurring compound that is chemically inert. This means that it won't break down in your body. These tiny beads are typically clear or white.
If your child eats non-indicating silica gel, call Poison Control immediately to determine the best course of treatment.
Since it won't break down, choking is the main concern. If your child swallows it down, it will likely travel through their body and they will probably poop it out with minimal issues. In most cases, doctors will advise that your child drink more water to help the beads move through their system more effectively and diminish the instance of dehydration.
Indicating Silica Gel
These silica gel packets are poisonous. This is made from the same silicon dioxide, but it is combined with a color-changing moisture indicator that shows when the silica beads go from dry to wet. "Common indicators used with silica gels are cobalt chloride and methyl violet." Both of these compounds are poisonous and require immediate medical attention.
If your child eats indicating silica gel, call Poison Control immediately and head to your nearest emergency room. This will require treatment.
If the beads in the open packet are blue or pink they're likely Cobalt chloride. If they're orange or green they are likely Methyl violet (but Methyl Violet can also be colorless). Knowing if a color was present prior to consumption will help ensure your child gets the correct treatment.
WARNING FOR PARENTS WHO ARE CAT OWNERS: Crystallized cat litters are made with silica gel. Make sure to keep these out of reach of young children.
4. Key Information to Have If Your Child Ate Silica Gel
Regardless of the type of silica gel your child ate, parents should determine:
- The amount of silica gel that was consumed (the easiest way to do this is the grab the packet and any beads that weren't eaten and throw them in a Ziploc bag)
- The time the silica gel was consumed
- The silica gel brand (this can help the health professionals to determine the ingredients and strength of the chemicals)
- Your child's basic information and current status (weight, age, and symptoms)
5. What Not to Do If Your Child Ate Silica Gel
We spoke with Dr. Jeremy Dalton, MD, a pediatrician with Covenant Medical Group and he had one clear piece of advice: Don't try to induce vomiting. This means that parents should never give their child Syrup of ipecac. Since silica gel is a choking hazard, you do not want to bring the small silica rocks or beads back into the throat. He stated that by giving your child this medication, you can actually increase the chance of your child choking.
Instead, Dr. Dalton recommended giving your child water to help dislodge any of the small beads that may still be stuck in their throat. He noted that this can also help to reduce the symptoms of both the indicating and non-indicating beads.
Symptoms of Concern for Both Toxic & Non-Toxic Silica Gels
No matter which type of silica gel your child ingests, if they start exhibiting these symptoms, they need to receive medical care immediately:
- Choking or trouble breathing -- start choking first aid immediately and call 9-1-1 in these instances
- Abdominal pain
- Inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement
Dr. Dalton stated that while choking is the main risk, "if your child eats a lot of silica gel, it could be enough to cause an intestinal obstruction", which would bring on the other symptoms listed above. This will typically require treatment at the hospital. While a small packet of silica gel would likely not cause this issue, if your child consumed crystalized cat litter, this could be a concern.
Just like young children, pets also get into things they are not supposed to and this can lead concerning health impacts. If you believe your pet has consumed silica gel, call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center to figure out how to proceed. They can be reached at (888) 426-4435.
Tips for Keeping Your Kids Safe
If your child ate a silica packet, Dr. Dalton stressed that parents should always call Poison Control and "follow up with their pediatrician within 48 to 72 hours" following the incident, even if their child is showing no distressing symptoms.
Dr. Dalton had one other piece of advice for parents: "It's always good to have the poison control number on hand because sometimes if you are under stress, it may not come to you right away, so I would just have that posted in fairly noticeable location."
You may be vigilant about throwing these packets away, but manufacturers often place them in the bottom of the box or in small pockets of the merchandise, making them hard to spot. Even though they serve a purpose, they can be annoying -- and a safety hazard for our kids!
Thankfully, the majority of health experts note that the little silica packets that you find in the box holding your new shoes, luggage, and other common household items are typically made with non-indicating (non-toxic) silica gel.
Make your kids a partner in keeping the house safe. Tell them if they find these packets anywhere and give them to you, they'll be rewarded with a special treat.
This was really scary but like most things, as parents we live and learn. It's a good reminder to be proactive and tell our little ones that silica packets are not food and not safe to eat.