The CDC says calls to poison control centers have gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what you need to know.

By Maggie O'Neill
April 22, 2020
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While what we know about COVID-19 seems to change daily, one piece of advice coming from health experts has stayed the same: Clean the surfaces in your household regularly.

As soon as the pandemic hit the US in early March, the Environmental Protection Agency put out a list of disinfectants equipped to fight coronavirus—and those products quickly flew off supermarket shelves. But a new report from the CDC points out why you need to be extremely careful when you return from the grocery store and start wiping everything down.

On Monday, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) stated that calls to poison control centers shot up at the beginning of March 2020, around the time that COVID-19 cases started increasing in the US. Calls related to exposure to cleaners and disinfectants were up 20.4% and 16.4% from the same time period of the previous year, respectively. The authors of the report made clear that they can’t definitively tie this increase in calls to poison centers to the coronavirus, but they speculate that it was caused by the amount of people who are now spending a lot more time cleaning to protect themselves from the pandemic.

Here's what you need to know to make sure you keep yourself safe from cleaning products while you work to protect yourself safe from COVID-19.

How to protect yourself when you’re working with household cleaners:

While there are tons of different household cleaning products on the market right now, and it's paramount to follow the cleaning instructions for all products, the biggest hazard that experts are concerned about currently is bleach, Diane Calello, MD, executive and medical director of New Jersey Poison Center, associate professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and co-author of the MMWR tells Health.

Bleach is a miracle worker in terms of keeping your home clean, but it can also be extremely dangerous if you don’t take the proper precautions. “Bleach is wonderful, but it’s one of the more hazardous substances," Rick Sachleben, a retired chemist and member of the American Chemical Society, tells Health. There are a few rules you can follow when you clean with bleach for your safety and the safety of anyone else who lives in your home.

1. Only use the recommended amount of bleach.

“A little bit goes a long way,” when it comes to bleach, says Sachleben. This is especially true when it comes to coronavirus. “This virus is pretty easy to kill,” he explains (the EPA previously said this is because coronaviruses in general are "enveloped viruses"). For this reason, you have every incentive to only use the appropriate amount—that means if the bleach product you’re working with says not to use more than a quarter cup, don’t increase it to a third or half a cup.

2. Don't mix bleach with just any other cleaning product—especially not ammonia.

The biggest problem with bleach use is that people often mistakenly mix it with other cleaning products. "You don’t want to mix bleach with anything except water and laundry detergent,” says Sachleben.

It’s especially important to avoid mixing bleach with ammonia, which is found in many household cleaning products like window cleaners and floor waxes (tip: always look at the ingredients label before mixing or using multiple household products). Mixing bleach with ammonia could result in the release of toxic chloramine gas—which can generate acid in your lungs when inhaled, says Dr. Calello—and can be fatal, according to the US National Library of Medicine. Mixing bleach with ammonia can cause chest pain, and shortness of breath, and requires immediate medical attention.

3. Wear gloves while working with bleach.

The CDC recommends you wear gloves when you’re doing disinfecting of any sort, but it's especially important to protect your hands while dealing with bleach because it's such a harsh cleaner, especially before it's mixed with water. Debra Jaliman, MD, a dermatologist based in New York City previously told Health that some cleaning products can cause skin irritation. For this reason, you should always have gloves on when you’re cleaning to protect yourself from skin issues like hives, rashes, or other irritations.

4. Use bleach in a well-ventilated area.

Air circulation is key when working with bleach, according to Sachleben—that's because bleach can cause respiratory irritation as well as irritation in the nose if you don't use it safely. "Don't try to clean a small bathroom with the door closed," says Dr. Calello.

If you do find yourself developing a sore throat or burning eyes when you're cleaning with bleach, leave the space you're cleaning immediately and consider calling for help, Dr. Calello advises. Other symptoms you should note when you're working with bleach include coughing, difficulty breathing, any pain that develops when you breathe, and wheezing, Dr. Calello adds.

5. If you start to feel ill while using bleach—or any other cleaning product—call for help immediately.

According to the National Capital Poison Center, you can call Poison Control or visit their online portal if you've taken too much of a medicine, swallowed something that might be poisonous, splashed a product in your eyes or on your skin, or inhaled fumes. Their staff of medical professionals can help you figure out next steps in treatment.

There are a few exceptions, however: If you or someone you know is exhibiting serious symptoms from inhalation or ingestion of something poisonous—like trouble breathing, seizure, or unconsciousness—call 911 right away. (Fortunately, says Dr. Calello, those three symptoms are unlikely to happen with cleaning and disinfectant exposures.) The poison control resource is also only for unintentional poisonings—self-harm attempts should always be addressed by 911. To contact your local poison control center, call 1-800-222-1222 or visit Poison.org.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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