You've gotta be kidding me. That's gotta be fake.

That's the understandable first reaction of many to the viral phenomenon dubbed the "Tide Pod Challenge."

Sad to say, it's real.

Prompted by internet dares, dozens of U.S. teenagers in recent weeks have popped liquid laundry detergent packets from a variety of manufacturers into their mouths just to see what happens, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC).

There have been 39 reported cases of teens intentionally ingesting laundry pods during the first 15 days of 2018, poison control center statistics show.

That's exactly as many cases reported for the entire year of 2016, and nearly three-quarters of the 53 intentional misuse cases reported to poison control in 2017, the AAPCC said.

"It's one of those things that seems to have taken on a life of its own, once it became a social media meme," said Alfred Aleguas Jr., managing director of the Florida Poison Information Center-Tampa. "Frankly, it's a little crazy."

About Detergent Pods

The plastic skins of laundry pods are designed to dissolve on contact with water and automatically release the pods' contents. That means when kids pop a pod in their mouths, they're very likely going to receive a flooded snootful of chemical cleansers.

"It is important to remember that these products are highly concentrated detergent packets. Their contents can cause serious harm if they are ingested or come into contact with the eyes or skin," said the American Cleaning Institute, a trade industry group. "They are not a toy and should not be used in pranks. Product safety is not a joke."

Dangers of Ingestion

Ingesting a detergent pod could potentially cause devastating long-term effects. If the detergent burns the esophagus, resulting in scarring, it narrows the passageway making it easier for food to get stuck.  

At the very least, kids who stick a pod in their mouth will cough, gag and foam at the mouth. At worst, they could experience diarrhea and vomiting, chemical burns to their throat and airways, severe breathing problems, seizures and even a coma, poison control experts said.

"We've even had some deaths" in years past, Aleguas said. "There's something about these single-load liquid laundry packets that make them more toxic."

Protecting Young Children

When laundry pods first hit the market several years ago, experts were particularly concerned about young children trying to eat them. The pods are very colorful and look like candy.

Indeed, children aged 5 and under were far and away most affected by intentional and unintentional exposure to single-load liquid laundry packets in 2017, accounting for 10,583 of the total 12,299 cases reported to the nation's poison control centers.

As a result, most messages about laundry pods have focused on warning parents to keep them out of the hands of young children. Poison centers even have gone so far as to recommend that parents with kids 5 and under not use the pods at all, Aleguas said.

Addressing the "Pod Challenge"

Putting the pods in a locked cabinet won't help with teenagers, since they can just hit the supermarket and buy their own if they're determined to pull this stunt, Aleguas said.

"Parents should sit down and talk with their teens and say, 'Yes, it seems funny and we know it's going around on social media, but it really has the potential to produce some very severe symptoms,'" Aleguas said. "You really are playing with fire. It's all fun and games until someone shows up in the emergency department."

If you have questions or concerns about the misuse or ingestion of a laundry packet, call the national poison help hotline immediately at 1-800-222-1222 for guidance. You can also text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your phone.

Don’t wait to call poison control if you detect any difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, foaming at the mouth or drooling, or seizures. Call 911 immediately.

More information

For more on laundry detergent pods, visit Consumer Reports.