NEWS

Poison Control Warns Against Ingesting At-home COVID Test Liquid

covid-19 at home test

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Key Takeaways

  • Most at-home COVID-19 rapid tests contain a small amount of a liquid chemical called sodium azide.
  • The chemical can be harmful if a large amount is ingested or exposed to the skin and eyes. But this is very rare.
  • Stay calm and contact poison control if you develop any symptoms after potential exposure.

You can now order a second round of free at-home COVID-19 tests from the government, but make sure you read the directions correctly and store them out of reach from children. Poison control centers are warning against ingesting a chemical inside some testing kits.

According to Poison Control, at-home test kits typically contain a nasal swab, an extraction vial (small tube of liquid), and a testing card. Once biological material from the nasal swab comes into contact with the fluid in the vial, it generates a positive or negative test result. 

While the steps to test may vary between brands, many of the testing kits include a liquid chemical in the extraction vial that could be harmful if someone ingests it. The amount of the chemical in most rapid tests is much lower than the amount expected to cause poisoning if swallowed by an adult.

It’s extremely rare for an adult to swallow this liquid, but it may be more likely if children get ahold of it.

What Chemicals Are in At-home COVID-19 Tests?

Those vials within COVID-19 at-home tests contain a few different chemicals

“COVID-19 home test kits contain various chemicals including inorganic phosphate, ProClin 300 (a surfactant), and sodium azide,” Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, a medical toxicologist and co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center, told Verywell. “Of these chemicals, sodium azide is the most concerning as it is recognized as a potent poison.” 

Sodium azide is a colorless, tasteless, and odorless powder used in car airbags, farming for pest control, and detonators/other explosives. The chemical is also used in the process of manufacturing beer, wine, and rubber. Rapid antigen tests including BinaxNow, BD Veritor, Flowflex, and Celltrion DiaTrust all contain this chemical.

For COVID-19 at-home tests, sodium azide is the chemical that you apply to the swab after you swab your nostrils, Jamie Alan, PhD, PharmD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, told Verywell in an email. While there is a very small amount of sodium azide in each test, Alan said it’s still possible tests can cause accidental poisoning.

“If you swallow this compound or have direct contact with your eyes it can be toxic,” Alan said. “This is because it prevents your cells from using oxygen, causing your body’s cells to die.”

When sodium azide contaminates food or water, is swallowed, or is released into the air, it can be dangerous to adults and children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So far Poison Control reports that most cases of accidental ingestion or exposure have led to some irritation or mild symptoms.

In one case, Poison Control reports that an adult woman mistook the liquid vial for her antibiotic eye drops, which she then put in her eye. She experienced some redness and irritation that dissipated after rinsing with water for 10 minutes.

Another adult couple misread the testing instructions and put the liquid in their nose with the swab. They experienced mild irritation in their nose, which resolved with nasal saline spray.

What Should I Do If I Am Exposed to the Liquid? 

If you or a loved one are exposed to sodium azide from an at-home COVID-19 testing kit, Johnson-Arbor said to stay calm and contact your local poison control center immediately by phone at 1-800-222-1222 or online. Both of the options are free, confidential and available to the public 24 hours a day.

Poison Control recommends that you do not make someone vomit if you suspect they have swallowed sodium azide and to rinse the skin well with tap water for any skin exposures. 

If the liquid is exposed to the eyes, flush your eyes out with saline or water (if saline is not available) for about 15 to 20 minutes, Alan said. If you are having any symptoms like a headache or nausea, Alan advises you to call 911.

What This Means For You

If you or someone you know is exposed to sodium azide and develops any symptoms, your local poison control center and rinse the area immediately. Keep testing kits in a safe place and out of the reach of children.

Disposing of Tests Safely

Before using an at-home COVID-19 test kit, read the instructions carefully and use the test only as directed. Johnson-Arbor recommends using gloves when conducting home testing and avoiding swallowing any fluids or getting them on your eyes or skin.

She added that it’s especially important to keep the tests away from children since they are smaller than adults and are more susceptible to the toxic effects of the chemical. Alan recommended putting tests in a locked cabinet to be safe.

“Take special care to keep the test kits and their contents out of the reach of children,” Johnson-Arbor said. “Do not keep the test kits near prescription or over-the-counter medications, as some of the regent fluid tubes resemble eye drop bottles and can be easily mistaken for them.”

After using a test kit, dispose of it immediately in the household trash and avoid leaving components of the test kit on counters, tables, nightstands, or other high-touch surfaces. According to Alan, the best way to safely dispose of the test is to pour the liquid onto a paper towel and throw it away in the trash can.

“As a general rule, never ingest or play with anything you don’t know about or understand,” Alan said. “Also, don’t panic and have poison control on the speed dial on your phone.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about sodium azide.