What Are the Dangers of Kids Eating Dirt?

by Amber Keefer, studioD
Dirt is home to both harmful and helpful organisms.

Dirt is home to both harmful and helpful organisms.

While you might cringe at the thought of your little one putting dirt in his mouth, an article published in a January 2009 issue of “The New York Times” states that studies suggest eating dirt isn't always bad. In the article, researchers point out that a clean environment helps prevent illness but doesn’t expose kids to organisms that contribute to a healthy immune system. That isn’t to say, however, that you should let your toddler eat mouthfuls of dirt that might make him sick.


While not all bacteria are harmful, some can cause infections that will make you and your toddler miserable. She'll be sick and fussy, and you'll be worn out from cleaning up the stuff coming out both ends. Salmonella is a nasty strain of bacteria found in soil that won't sit well in your little one's tummy. Once salmonella bacteria finds its way to her stomach and intestinal tract, it can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and fever. Toddlers infected by salmonella can spread it to other people if they don’t wash their hands after going to the potty, according to KidsHealth. The bacteria will be in their poop and can get into food they touch with unwashed hands.


Infant botulism is rare but serious. Although most babies recover, bacteria in spores a child ingests when eating dirt can cause the illness. Kids get sick when the bacteria produce a toxin in the intestinal tract. Symptoms include constipation, muscle weakness, trouble swallowing and problems breathing. Although infant botulism generally affects babies between the ages of 3 weeks and 6 months old, a child can get the illness up to 1 year of age, according to KidsHealth. Even if your exploring toddler likes to eat dirt, you can breathe a sigh of relief once his first birthday passes. Children usually aren’t affected after age 1. That's because their digestive systems have developed sufficiently, and the spores pass quickly through their body.


Toxic chemicals and heavy metals like lead found in soil can be especially harmful to youngsters, who are more vulnerable to the effects of toxins. With this information under your belt, you have reason to be mortified when you find your 2-year-old to eating dirt, particularly if you live in an industrial area or in an older home. Small tots are more likely to ingest toxic chemicals and heavy metals found in soil. It doesn't matter whether your toddler intentionally eats dirt or just puts her dirty hands in her mouth. A young child who weighs much less than an adult can get sicker from exposure to a toxin even if the amount is the same, according to the website from the New York State Department of Health.

Harmful Organisms

The thought of your little one eating dirt packed full of tiny organisms like parasites, bacteria and viruses is horrifying. But chances are he doesn’t eat enough of the stuff to make him sick. While some kinds of bacteria are healthy, other types can cause nasty symptoms if ingested. Coliform bacteria in soil contaminated with untreated sewage will give your toddler a bad case of diarrhea while E. coli is a much more serious bacterial infection. E. coli can lead to an infection in the digestive system that can cause acute kidney failure in children, according to the Aboutkidshealth website.

About the Author

Amber Keefer has more than 25 years of experience working in the fields of human services and health care administration. Writing professionally since 1997, she has written articles covering business and finance, health, fitness, parenting and senior living issues for both print and online publications. Keefer holds a B.A. from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. in health care management from Baker College.

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