Q.When I took some medication this morning, I thought I'd accidentally swallowed the freshness packet in the vial instead of my pill. Luckily, I didn't, but what if I had? Is that dangerous?
A. No. The small paper packets or plastic packages you find in certain containers of medication, dietary supplements, and vitamins are drying agents called desiccants that contain nontoxic silica gel, a kind of sand.
"It might be a choking hazard, but you wouldn't need to go to the ER based on what's in the desiccant," says Mike Yudizky, an educator with the North Texas Poison Center and a member of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Manufacturers add the packets to some containers of medication to maintain drug quality by keeping moisture at bay, says Desmond Hunt, Ph.D., senior scientific liaison with U.S. Pharmacopeia. "Silica gel tends to be the best drying agent; it can hold 40 percent of its weight in water."
Desiccants are only put in containers when necessary, such as for pills coated with gelatin, which are susceptible to moisture. They're often used with dietary supplements since many of them have a gelatin coating, says Hunt. "Every time you open a container, a little moisture permeates, so they can help prevent the pills from degrading," he adds.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets guidelines for desiccants placed in drug containers. Among other things, they are required to look different from the drug or supplement in shape, size or both, which helps reduce the chance of accidental ingestion.
If you're concerned about accidentally swallowing the desiccant in your container, ask your pharmacist before removing it, especially if it's a container with several months supply of capsules that you'll have for a while. Throwing out the desiccant could, over time, compromise the quality of the drug.
To ensure that you're swallowing medication, not the silica-gel packet, always look at what you're doing when you pour pills out of the container. If you normally take medication in the dark before going to sleep, start using a light to avoid this problem.
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