Silica gel is a drying agent that often comes in the form of small, clear beads or clear rock crystals placed in small packets made of paper or cloth. These packets are often packaged with commercial products to prevent damage caused by moisture. Silica gel packets can be found in a wide range of products, such as food, clothing, and electronics.
Silica gel is usually non-toxic, but it is a choking hazard, especially for small children. Silica gel packets are frequently labeled with “Do not eat” because of the risk of choking.
What is Desiccant Silica Gel?
Silica gel is a “desiccant,” which means that it’s used to keep things dry. Silica gel is made from silicon dioxide — a compound naturally found in sand — and has small particles that can absorb large amounts of water. Therefore, desiccant silica gel packets are put in store-bought products to prevent damage due to humidity. Silica gel packets can often be found in the following products:
- Clothes (e.g., coats, shoes, and hats)
- Electronics (e.g., cellphone and camera boxes)
- Medication or vitamin bottles
- Foods (e.g., packets of dry fruit and beef jerky)
Manufacturers frequently label packets “Do not eat” because poison control centers have reported increases in incidences of people accidentally eating silica gel packets. Most cases involve young children.
Is Silica Gel Toxic?
Silica gel is non-toxic but it is a choking hazard for young children.
However, in some rare instances, manufacturers coat silica gel in cobalt chloride, a toxic compound. Eating cobalt chloride-coated silica gel will likely cause nausea and vomiting. Cobalt chloride is a moisture indicator that is dark blue when dry and pink when saturated with water. Cobalt chloride-coated silica gel isn’t usually used for consumer products.
What Happens if You Eat Silica Gel?
Children can mistake silica gel for food or candy and eat either the silica gel or the entire packet. Adults sometimes mistake silica gel packets for the salt or sugar packets commonly found in takeout food.
Accidentally eating desiccant silica gel shouldn’t make you or your child sick because it’s chemically inert, which means that it won’t break down in the body and cause poisoning. Most of the time, silica gel will pass through your body without any harmful effects.
But this doesn’t mean that eating silica gel is entirely without risk. Desiccant silica gel is a choking hazard. Also, if eaten in large quantities, desiccant silica gel may cause intestinal obstruction. This is why manufacturers often label the packets with “Do not eat” or “Throw away after using”.
In rare cases, other toxic components (e.g., cobalt chloride and strong alkali) are present in the silica gel packets. Therefore, it is important to check for any symptoms (e.g., vomiting and stomach pains) after the silica gel has been eaten.
What Should You Do if You Eat Silica Gel?
If you or your child accidentally eats silica gel, it is important to drink water to help the gel pass to the stomach. You should then continue to monitor for any symptoms.
If your child is choking, seek emergency medical attention and perform the following maneuvers:
- For children aged over one year, perform the Heimlich maneuver.
- For children aged less than one year, perform the infant Heimlich maneuver.
Do not put your fingers in your child’s mouth as this may push the packet into their airway.
When Should You Seek Medical Attention?
The dehydration caused by swallowing silica gel may irritate the throat and nose, stomach pains, vomiting, constipation, and nausea. You should seek medical attention if:
- The silica gel beads are blue or pink (i.e., coated in cobalt chloride).
- You have vomited repeatedly or can't keep food down.
- You are experiencing stomach pains and/or can’t pass gas or stool.
Stomach pains and the inability to pass gas or stool can indicate an intestinal obstruction, which may be caused by the silica gel packet.
What Should You Do if Silica Gel Gets in your Eyes?
Silica gel can irritate your eyes. Therefore, you must rinse your eyes with lukewarm water, occasionally lifting the upper and lower lids, for at least 15 minutes.