Will Eating a Jar of Gummy Vitamins Kill My 4 Year Old?

by Gillian Mayman on October 15, 2012

An illustrated guide to parenting with science.

My youngest son LOVES gummy vitamins. When he was four, I tried hard to convince him that they weren’t candy. I was not successful.

After discovering a half empty jar and seeing the guilty look on his face, I knew what had happened.

A quick, slightly panicked call to the pediatrician resulted in being told that I essentially had nothing to worry about. I immediately worried that I didn’t know enough about vitamins, how poisonous they were, and in what quantities.

43% of 4-8 year olds in the United States take some form of vitamin supplement and much of these are in the form of a candy flavored chewable vitamin. Gummy vitamins, in particular, look and taste like candy. This is great if you have a child that needs to take a multivitamin but is a picky eater. It is bad if you are trying to keep the child safe from hypervitaminosis (i.e., vitamin poisoning).

Multivitamins contain water soluble vitamins, fat soluble vitamins, and varying types of minerals.

Water Soluble Vitamins

Water soluble vitamins include Vitamin C and B vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, folate B-6 and B-12. When large quantities of these vitamins are consumed, the excess amount that the body doesn’t use will come out in the urine. These vitamins generally do not pose a health risk because they do not stay in the body for a large amount of time.

Fat Soluble Vitamins

Fat soluble vitamins have greater potential to be harmful. These include vitamins A, D, E and K. Excess amounts are stored in the liver and fatty cells. Compared to water soluble vitamins, these are eliminated from the body much more slowly. By lingering in the body longer, fat soluble vitamins have greater potential to be harmful.

Researchers at China Hong Kong University studied the possibility of vitamin A toxicity from eating too many gummy vitamins. Of the three reported cases of children consuming large amounts of gummy vitamins over the period of a few days, they found no clinical or biochemical complications. None of the children had any of the possible adverse effects including nausea, vomiting, headaches, blurred vision, ataxia, hair loss, skin peeling (!), or bone pain.

If the children had continued to consume such large quantities of gummy vitamins for a longer period of time, there was a greater chance that they would have sustained serious harm. The fact that the vitamins were consumed within a very short period of time was most likely helpful. The body is less efficient at absorbing vitamin A as the dose gets larger.

Minerals

Multivitamins also contain varying minerals- zinc, calcium, iron, iodine, choline, etc. There is a particularly large potential for harm if your child eats too many vitamins that contain iron. For children, iron overdose is a leading cause of poisoning-related injury and death. Luckily, the gummy vitamins that my son ate did not contain iron.

For the most harmful effects of vitamin overdose, the greatest harm comes from consuming either extremely large quantities at one time or from consuming large quantities for a sustained period of time.

If your child eats more than the recommended amount gummy vitamins, be sure to call your doctor. Their response may be to reassure you and tell you to not give your child any more vitamins for a period of time.

As a mom, I’m never satisfied when my doctor tells me not to worry. I want to worry. I want to know all of the awful possibilities, regardless of how small a risk or how insufficient the evidence.

If you want to know all of the gorey, possible adverse effects* of consuming too many Flintstones Gummy Vitamins in one sitting, read below. If you want reassurance, call your doctor. (Which, seriously, you need to do. I’m not a doctor.)

 For 4-8 year olds  
Recommended Amount (2)

Entire Jar (150)

Upper Safe Limit**
 Vitamin A 600 mcg 45,000 mcg 3,000 mcg
Possible harm: Dizziness, nausea, headaches, coma, and even death.
 Vitamin C 30 mg 2,250 mg 650 mg
Possible harm: Diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, and other gastrointestinal disturbances.
 Vitamin D 10 mcg 750 mcg 50 mcg
Possible harm: Elevated blood levels of calcium which leads to vascular and tissue calcification in addition to anorexia, weight loss, polyuria, and heart arrhythmias.
 Vitamin E 18 mg 1,350 mg 300 mg
Possible harm: Animal studies have found hemorrhage and interrupted blood coagulation.

 Vitamin B6

1 mg 75 mg 40 mg
Possible harm: Painful, disfiguring dermatological lesions; photosensitivity; and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea and heartburn.
 Folic Acid 200 mcg 15,000 mcg 400 mcg
No adverse effects have been found.
 Vitamin B12 3 mcg 225 mcg ND***
No adverse effects have been found.
 Biotin 75 mcg 5625 mcg ND***
No adverse effects have been found.
 Pantothenic Acid 5 mg 375 mg ND***
No adverse effects have been reported.
 Iodine 30 mcg 2250 mcg 300 mcg
Possible harm: Burning of the mouth, throat, and stomach; fever; stomach pain; nausea; vomiting; diarrhea; weak pulse; and coma. (Caused by consuming several grams.)
 Zinc 2.5 mg 187.5 mg 12 mg
Possible harm: Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and headaches.
 Choline 38 mg 2850 mg 1000 mg
Possible harm: Fishy body odor, sweating, salivation, hypotension, hepatotoxicity

 *Note: This information is from the Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes: Vitamins and also the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements Factsheets. I have not included side effects that were listed as resulting from chronic over consumption. Instead, I have listed only the side effects which seemed to be potential effects of acute consumption. When this was not clearly demarcated, I included the side effects in this list.

**The Upper Safe Limit is the established maximum amount that can be safely consumed without risk of an overdose or serious side effects.

 ***Not determinable due to lack of data of adverse effects.

[Table updated with correct amounts for jar of gummy vitamins]

John Spevacek October 15, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Yet another nice post with great flow.

I’ve always wondered how much children’s biochemistry and metabolism differs from adults. After all, they are able to eat sweets at a rate that we can’t keep up with. And that’s on an absolute basis. If you ratio it by body weight, they can eat a tremendous quantity of cookies and ice cream and… and not feel the effects. Maybe their bodies are just better able to reject large quantities of “unhealthy” foods.

Brian Zikmund-Fisher October 15, 2012 at 4:25 pm

This one made me smile! I _love_ the real world story element.

If you know, can you comment more on the issue of iron in supplements? Do you know which populations most need iron supplementation and which particularly do NOT? I bring this up because I know that most senior vitamins are iron-free.

After my bone marrow transplant, I was specifically advised to avoid supplements with iron because the transplanted marrow was essentially an iron transfusion itself. Do you know if those who receive blood transfusions regularly are also supposed to avoid iron supplementation?

Gillian Mayman October 15, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Breast-fed infants and pregnant/breast-feeding women, in particular, are more likely to need iron supplements. Both men and women over 50 do not require as much iron as those under 50 and are generally advised to not take an iron supplement because excess iron stays in the body and organs and can build up and become toxic.

I really can’t speak to bone marrow transplant patients. A quick search revealed a number of studies discussing the benefits of iron supplementation before a blood transfusion. It’s an interesting question.

Emily April 9, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Brian- I have thalassemia minor and I know that thalassemia major patients who have to get regular blood transfusions actually have to undergo iron chelation because they have too much iron in their blood. So these patients might be advised to avoid supplements with iron. :)

Jennifer October 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm

This post flowed really well, and I appreciate the time you took to create tables and insert pictures. The table was very helpful!

I’m a chemist, but I’m not a biochemist or a vitamin supplement expert, and I wondered about the accuracy of saying iodine and chlorine are minerals. Is this common terminology in the vitamin industry? Chlorine is actually a gas, although it’s in many minerals as the chloride ion, and iodine is a finicky solid, but neither are minerals in and of themselves. I may be being too picky, but I’ve found the “real life” and “science” definitions of the same words to confuse non-scientist citizens.

Gillian Mayman October 15, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Sorry- that was a typo from adding the information at the last minute. It’s not chlorine, it’s choline that is in the gummy vitamins. I agree with you, though, that the labeling of some of these as ‘minerals’ is odd. I struggled with how to categorize everything and came across an article lamenting the labeling of minerals as vitamins, so I tried to be accurate. Generally, people just lump them all together. I specifically pulled out minerals because I felt like I really needed to mention the serious risk of iron overdose and it didn’t fit within the two broad categories of vitamins. If I had another few days to work on this, I would have fleshed out that section quite a bit more.

Jennifer October 15, 2012 at 8:28 pm

the typo makes sense now– I think you did great with the vitamins and minerals. I agree it’s VERY important to stress the dangers of iron overdose and iron-containing vitamins.

Every time I look at this post, the toilet graphic makes me laugh. Nice job :)

Emily April 9, 2013 at 10:58 pm

The best way to determine whether or not something is a vitamin or mineral is to determine whether it is an organic compound containing carbon, nitrogen, etc or an atom in it’s pure form (iron, zinc, etc). If it comes straight off the periodic table, it’s probably a mineral!

Margaret October 16, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Gillian,
Again, I love your style mixed with lots of good information. I am always looking for more information. You had some great medical lingo mixed in again, but this time you did not define what some of the words mean. Obviously I can go ahead and go to dictionary.com to look it up, but it is always nice to have a small definition of a rarer condition like (ataxia).

Great style and good information.

Margaret

PF Anderson October 17, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Gillian, you are a real treasure, and you do this so beautifully! The graphics and images in particular are priceless! I bet you make them yourself, and spend a lot of time on them. Very nicely done. The closing table is also extremely useful to parents everywhere. The upper safe limit was for which age group or weight category? That wasn’t clear to me in the post. Also, while you link to excellent choices of articles for the most part, there is no bibliography for the links within the post, aside from those for the table. Last aside, I know you said after the table that you only listed side effects of an acute overdose, but … I’m concerned that many readers wouldn’t read the fine print, and might not understand that these are not the ONLY possible side effects from taking these vitamins (especially for those where it says “no known side effects”). I have to agree with Brian – I LOVE the real world stories threaded through your posts. You have a real talent for this!

Gillian Mayman October 18, 2012 at 10:17 am

Thanks, Patricia. Regarding references, I really go back and forth on this. As a former librarian, I want them there. As a writer of a blog post, I’m not sure I do. When I add them to the post, I feel like it makes it look like a research paper or a student project and neither of which capture the feeling that I’m going for. It’s also not standard practice on blogs to list formal citations (see: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2012/10/17/ancient-armored-fish-had-first-bad-bite/ or http://scienceblogs.com/seed/2012/10/17/coldest-colder-freezing-cool/). There’s definitely an argument that it should be standard practice and that on this class blog we should be doing things as correctly as possible. I see that argument but I’ve made the choice not to include them. Feel free to argue me on that!

I didn’t include ALL of the side effects because that just felt needlessly alarmist. Especially because I worked hard to try to find studies of vitamin toxicity among children eating multivitamins and came up mostly empty handed (except in the case of iron).

Gillian Mayman October 18, 2012 at 10:20 am

Also, I just added the age range for the information. That’s important to know! My mistake for leaving that off.

Carol Shannon October 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm

I’m coming a bit late to this particular party, but I needed to chime in on the issue of references in blogs. I much prefer to not see references at the bottom of the page, even though I know that, without them, I could miss out on an article. For me, it simply seems too much like a scholarly article, not a blog post. I appreciate both forms, but do think that this is a reasonable difference between them. Especially interms of communicating with the general public, you may very well lose people who see the refs. & think that the post is not going to be for them.

Angela October 17, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Thank you for the post – loved the illustrations! Particularly this one would make a great print: http://www.mindthesciencegap.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Gummy-Vitamins.png
I think addressing the toxicity of overdosing on vitamin supplements is very important. Your post made me wonder whether most of the vitamin supplements consumed are actually needed. I get the sense that marketing is generating a bit of a paranoia that we are not getting enough vitamins and minerals from our diet. My parents kept sending vitamin supplements to me when I went to university, but I usually gave them away, because for some reason they make me vomit/feel sick. Could be the stuff that the vitamins are encased in, though. Has anyone ever looked at the different kinds of ‘vehicle’ for supplements?

Rosa Herrera October 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Too high doses of vitamin C may cause stomach upset, as well as diarrhea. In some cases, it can also cause vomiting. Vitamin A overdose may result in hair loss, headaches, plus permanent liver damage if too much of the vitamin is taken daily.

Destiny January 3, 2013 at 6:59 pm

When I was 7 i ate 2 jars of Flintstones Gummy Vitamins, I had the runs for a half a week and a migraine for 2 days, after that I was ship-shape.

Stefan Krzywicki October 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Nice chart, but some of your numbers are wrong. While most number for “entire jar (150)” correctly multiply the “Recommended Amount (2)” by 75, a number of entries multiple it by 150, doubling the amount you’d get from an entire jar. Vitamin A, D & E are doubled.
Vitamin B12 is either missing a decimal from the first column or has one it shouldn’t in the second.

Gillian Mayman October 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Basic math is my undoing! I corrected the problems- thank you for pointing them out. The table went through multiple, widely differing iterations and I clearly needed to have it go through a final proofread after I condensed everything into this format.

FBurgMom January 25, 2013 at 5:29 pm

My 3 year old just ate 5-20 Disney Princess vitamins (she said 5 but I think it could be up to 20 after counting what’s left in the bottle). I just got off the phone with poison control and they said that since there’s no iron in them she should be okay, but to give her water and a snack, expect some tummyaches and discolored urine, and don’t give her any more vitamins for a few days.

Derick February 9, 2013 at 3:02 am

Very good blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring
writers? I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
Would you suggest starting with a free platform
like Wordpress or go for a paid option? There
are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any suggestions? Kudos!

Matty February 25, 2013 at 1:07 am

I knew a kid that ate a whole jar of gummy vitamins (at the store) when his mom wasn’t looking he was 4 the only thing that happened to him was he had the runs within a few days he was fine.

Melissa March 13, 2013 at 8:04 am

My 2 yr old son just consumed an unknown amount if gummy vitamins and since there is no iron in them, as you stated, the Poison Control said not to worry. He may have a belly ache and diarrhea so they said to give him extra water. I came across your article while frantically searching for answers. Thank you for the information!

Fredrick Zinos March 27, 2013 at 3:22 pm

If the question is whether or not eating a jar of gummie vitamins will kill your 4 year old, there is not certainty that it will. You will need to try something else.

Dr Amit Goswami June 12, 2013 at 2:34 am

the article is very helpful to know about vitamins

Celia Watson June 22, 2013 at 12:46 am

I’m not a mother, but I’ve got a great idea how to prevent this stuff from happening.
When you get gummy vitamins for your little tyke, go ahead buy some actual gummy bears too! Then during snack time get a cup of gummy bears, and mix the 2 gummy vitamins along with the cup of gummy bears! Oh yeah, make sure to hide the gummy bears well! And then your child won’t get vitamin poisoning!

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