f you haven’t heard, teens are eating laundry detergent (despite being old enough to know better) to take part in the Tide Pod Challenge, a viral social media stunt in which you put a , which resembles a gummy candy, in your mouth and record your reaction as the pod dissolves.
In the first 15 days of 2018, there were 39 reported cases of intentional Tide Pod ingestion among 13 to 19 year olds, The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported last week. (For reference: 53 were recorded in 2017 and 39 in 2016.)
“It’s a terrible idea,” says Dr. Michael Lynch, M.D., medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center and AAPCC spokesperson. Tide shares this sentiment, according to a recent tweet:
Dr. Lynch says Tide Pods are considered poisonous, i.e., they can cause injury when consumed in large enough quantities. When ingested, he says, Tide Pods can be even more dangerous than liquid detergents, since they’re highly concentrated, while bottled alternatives are diluted with water.
Here’s what actually happens when you eat a Tide Pod, according to Dr. Lynch. (His warning to all: If you end up with the stuff in your system, call Poison Control immediately, swish with water and spit, then drink several cups of water to flush your system and help symptoms subside. If they worsen or you have trouble breathing, go to the emergency room ASAP.)
When it First Enters Your Mouth
In 2015, Tide began coating laundry pods with a special substance called Bitrex (aka denatonium benzoate) to stop children from eating them, according to the The Wall Street Journal, so the first taste will be bitter. Your body may respond with a wave of nausea, and your stomach may release extra acids to prepare you to vomit, even before you swallow.
Assuming your food stays down, you may react to the foul taste by inhaling sharply, a move that could lodge the pod in your throat and temporarily block your airway, until the pod’s coating dissolves. The time this takes will vary based on the amount of moisture present, and the discomfort could trigger coughing.
When the Liquid Is Released
If the pod remains in your mouth, you’ll release saliva containing digestive enzymes. If it hasn’t already, the pod’s coating will begin to dissolve, unleashing a gel-like substance made from various cleaning agents and stain fighters into the mouth.
When the gel comes into contact with the tissues that line your mouth (aka mucous membranes), the detergent coats the cells that make up the membrane’s outer layer. Its pH kills the cells on contact, which results, at a microscopic level, in them releasing internal matter. In most cases, this will cause a burning sensation almost immediately, with sensitivity on the insides of your cheeks and your tongue that can last for a few minutes or up to a few days. It’s like when you burn your mouth on hot soup, except it’s a chemical burn, not a physical one. The worst is over once the irritant leaves your mouth, but if you’ve bitten into a pod and spit it out, your lips could be particularly burned.
In response to the burning sensation, your immune system jumps into action, launching the body’s natural defense — its inflammatory response — to fight injury and infection. As a result, your lips, tongue, and insides of your cheeks may become swollen. The longer you’re exposed to the irritant at its full concentration, the more swelling you will experience.
After You Swallow
Because the contents of Tide Pods are more gelatinous than liquid, they might not wash down the hatch quite as quickly as water. Upon coming into contact with the substance, the back of your throat might begin to burn and swell for the reasons above, causing the circumference of your windpipe to shrink in size. Because this is the only path for oxygen to travel from the mouth to the lungs, and the only route for carbon dioxide to exit the body, the blockage can make you feel short of breath. In response, your impulse may be to inhale quickly or deeply. Paired with a lack of oxygen, this effort will tire you out. After some time — it could be several minutes or more, depending on your exposure and the severity of the blockage— you might begin to feel groggy.
If you happen to inhale sharply, this could pave the way for detergent to travel deeper into your system, namely into your lungs, and damage the mucous membranes. Depending on the residual damage and how much your breathing is compromised, you may need a ventilator to help you breathe.
If the gel gets stuck in your esophagus before dissolving, you may sustain burns therein. Although it’s highly unlikely that detergent will perforate the esophagus, which could result in death, if you consume a large volume of concentrated detergent — i.e., several pods — you could develop an ulcer, with bleeding, bloody vomit, and blood loss in the digestive tract. Healing could lead to an esophageal stricture, or narrowing of the esophagus, that creates difficulty swallowing and could require surgery to correct.
By the time noxious gel from just one Tide Pod dissolves on its way to your lower gastrointestinal tract, the reduced concentration of irritants will likely leave the lower esophagus, stomach, and intestines unscathed. However, in some cases, your stomach may produce extra acid, causing the sensation of heartburn plus further irritation.
Meanwhile, the increase in saliva production in the mouth and mucous secretion in the lungs, mouth, and throat can provoke coughing, and you may find yourself spitting out particularly bubbly saliva singed pink, white, or purple thanks to the dyes in the detergent.
The Bottom Line:
In rare cases, eating a Tide Pod on purpose (or accidentally) could lead to death due to breathing problems or other complications, Dr. Lynch says. The more you swallow, the greater your risk. In most cases, symptoms go away after a few hours, but could land you in the hospital for several days or more. In other words? It’s not worth it.
If you suspect you’ve consumed a toxic substance, call the National Poison Help Hotline at 1-800-222-1222 or text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your phone.