Windshield washer fluid is a brightly colored liquid made of methanol, a poisonous alcohol. Sometimes small amounts of other toxic alcohols such as ethylene glycol are added to the mixture.
Some young children may mistake the fluid for juice, which can lead to accidental poisoning. Even small amounts can cause significant damage. This article discusses poisoning from swallowing windshield washer fluid.
This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or a local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
Methanol (methyl alcohol, wood alcohol)
Windshield washer fluid (used to clean automobile windows)
Seek immediate medical help. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional.
Before Calling Emergency
If possible, determine the following information:
Patient's age, weight, and condition (for example, is the person awake or alert?)
Name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
Time it was swallowed
However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.
Poison Control, or a local emergency number
In the United States, call 1-800-222-1222 to speak with a local poison control center. This hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. You can call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What to expect at the emergency room
The health care provider will measure and monitor the patient's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. The patient may receive:
Dialysis to remove the poison from body in severe poisonings
Medicines called folinic acid and bicarbonate
Medicine (antidote) to reverse the effect of the poison
Tube through the mouth or nose into the stomach to wash out the stomach (gastric lavage)
Methanol, the main ingredient in windshield washing fluid, is extremely poisonous. As little as 2 tablespoons can be deadly to a child. About 2 to 8 ounces can be deadly for an adult. Blindness is common and often permanent despite medical care.
The ultimate outcome depends on how much poison was swallowed and how soon treatment was received.
Although many windshield washer fluids are a watered-down form of methanol, they can still be dangerous if swallowed.
Barceloux DC, Bond GR, Krenzelok EP, et al. American Academy of Clinical Toxicology practice guidelines on the treatment of methanol poisoning. J Toxicol Clin Toxicol. 2002;40(4):415-46.
Michael JB. Deadly pediatric poisons: nine common agents that kill at low doses. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2004; 22(4): 1019-50.
Goldfrank LR, ed. Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2006.
Eric Perez, MD, St. Luke's / Roosevelt Hospital Center, NY, NY, and Pegasus Emergency Group (Meadowlands and Hunterdon Medical Centers), NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.