We’re just barely three weeks into 2018, and already we have weird things happening. No, I’m not talking about the government shutdown or cute penguins jumping into research boats or things exploding in the sky over Detroit. I’m talking about the ‘Tide Pod Challenge.’
The history of the Tide Pod Challenge meme is not as recent as you might think. The pods themselves were first sold in 2012 by Tide, resulting in an increase in accidental ingestions by children who likely thought they were candy. In 2013, The Onion wrote an article written from the perspective of a young child who wanted a taste of the forbidden fruit. The Onion also wrote an article featuring the debut of ‘sour apple’ pods in 2017. The meme continued gaining traction in 2017 when CollegeHumor.com made a video about eating laundry pods. The meme spread further on Twitter and Instragram in December 2017 into January 2018, when YouTubers started making their own videos joking about it. From there, the Tide Pod Challenge became mainstream. Tide has released a statement themselves, discouraging people from consuming pods.
The Washington Post reports that in 2017 about 50 teenagers had intentionally ingested laundry pods, and so far in 2018, nearly 20 have intentionally eaten detergent pods.
However, not everyone is joking about eating the pods. Jezebel reported that historically most cases of ingestion of laundry pods were accidental, by either small children, individuals with cognitive impairments, or those who suffered from dementia. A PLOS One study in 2014 even looked at instances of inedible hygiene products, and found that shampoo marketed as “fruit” can confuse consumers, leading to the potential for endangerment.
Clearly, the comedy factor behind the memes isn’t at the expense of those with mental impairments, dementia, or small children. The joke itself is rooted in post-postmodern nihilistic absurdist humor.
So what happens to your body when you join the Tide Pod Challenge?
“The pods are in plastic wrapping, which puts them under some pressure, so when you chew on them they will explode in the mouth and coat the mucous membranes inside,” Anderson says. The alkaline pH of the highly concentrated liquid can cause immediate irritation in the mouth and vomiting, Anderson says. When the pod ruptures upon the first bite, it can also get in the eyes and cause burning or abrasions.
The nasty chemical taste and burning sensation causes most people to cough or gag and reflexively spit the pod contents out — unless you’re a monster who enjoys the taste of detergent.
The detergent in the pods can also result in burns to your esophagus and stomach.
The chemicals can cause burns on the back of mouth and down the esophagus,” Anderson says. The detergent can also seriously irritate the lining of your stomach. “That’s why the body typically immediately revolts and people vomit, because the stomach is burning,” Anderson says.
It doesn’t stop there, though. What goes in must come out, after all…
The one good thing is that it won’t take that long for it to pass through your body, so you’ll know within the first hour after ingesting it if something is going to happen,” says Anderson. Some of the chemicals can depress the central nervous system, causing drowsiness.
And it can get much, much worse. Of course when you bite into it, you’ll likely gag or cough – meaning there’s a potential for it to get inside your lungs.
“People can also cough and aspirate on their own vomit, which contains the detergent, so it can go into the lungs,” Anderson says. “Anything like detergent that’s very reactive, or contains surfactants, is going to be very irritating for the lungs,” Anderson says. If someone gets to this point, they might need to be put on a ventilator.
The results of the Tide Pod Challenge can be fatal, particularly so for younger children, according to Dr. Anderson.
“Technically, yes, you can die if you inhaled or ingest a very large amount of laundry detergent — and a small child could die from a single pod if they got enough of it in their lungs,” Anderson says. When laundry detergent pod ingestion is fatal, it’s usually due to a combination of things that lead to respiratory distress. “It causes an inflammatory cascade — so you get the irritation in the lungs, go into acute respiratory distress, and that leads to swelling and fluid pooling into the lungs which can be fatal,” Anderson says. Pod ingestion can also cause seizures or comas, according to AAPCC. Another serious complication from eating detergent pods is called “esophagus strictures.” In the long term, the burns from the detergent can cause esophageal scarring, Anderson says, which can result in the esophagus actually tightening. “This puts you at higher risk for food impactions and choking.”
According to Dr. Anderson, If you or someone you know ingests laundry detergent – Tide Pod Challenge related or otherwise – the first thing you should do is have the individual rinse their mouth out and drink water to help dilute the detergent while you or someone else calls Poison Control (1-800-222-1222), provided the symptoms are mild. If the symptoms are more severe, call 911. Do not induce vomiting.
“When you call Poison Control, be ready to tell them the exact brand and type of pod, because they need to know the specific ingredients and concentration of them to assess the situation,” Anderson says. Poison Control will typically advise you to wait and monitor symptoms. “The good thing is that the detergent affects the body fairly quickly, so you’ll usually know if something is going to happen within an hour or so,” Anderson says. If symptoms become severe or you experience prolonged vomiting, wheezing, severe drowsiness, or trouble breathing — call 911 or go to the hospital. When it comes to treatment, there’s no detergent antidote. “We usually just offer supportive care, so if there’s burning in the esophagus we’ll give you an IV and an endoscopy or if you are in respiratory distress we’ll put you on a CPAP or ventilator until things improve,” Anderson says.
When in doubt, call your doctor. And for the love of Satan, don’t eat laundry detergent, okay?