Lead Poisoning

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is lead poisoning?

Lead is a heavy metal that is toxic to the human body. Lead poisoning can result from placing lead objects in your mouth, placing fingers in your mouth after handling lead, or from breathing dust that contains lead. Lead can be found in pre-1978 house paint, solder used in plumbing, old toys or furniture, imported toys, curtain weights, pottery, porcelain, leaded glass, and hobby materials. Lead poisoning often develops gradually as lead accumulates in the body as a result of multiple exposures.

Lead exposure and poisoning is especially concerning in infants and children, as it can affect their developing nervous systems and interfere with mental development. In the United States, approximately 250,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old are estimated to have lead levels above the level that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers to be a public health concern (Source: CDC).

Because lead poisoning can be gradual, its symptoms may not be obvious. Symptoms can include slowed growth, behavioral problems, problems in school, developmental delay, abdominal pain, constipation, headache, sleep disorders, decreased appetite, fatigue, decreased sensation, and hearing problems. Vomiting, walking difficulties, weakness, seizures, and coma can occur with very high blood lead levels.

Since lead poisoning can cause permanent complications, the best treatment for lead poisoning is prevention. If lead is ingested, bowel irrigation or gastric lavage (stomach pumping) may be considered to help clear the gut. Chelation therapy may be needed to bind and remove lead from the body. Following treatment, it is crucial to avoid ongoing lead exposure as much as possible.

Lead poisoning can have serious, even life-threatening complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for ingestion of significant amounts of lead or for symptoms of severe lead toxicity, including seizures, vomiting, or alterations in level of consciousness.

Seek prompt medical care if you have concerns about possible lead poisoning.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

The gradual accumulation of lead in the body may make it difficult to recognize symptoms of lead poisoning. Ultimately, changes in cognition, slow development, behavioral issues, motor and sensory problems, decreased attention span, sleepiness, and poor appetite may be noticed. Headaches, constipation, and abdominal pain may be present.

Common symptoms of lead poisoning

Many symptoms of lead poisoning develop gradually. Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Attention problems
  • Constipation
  • Developmental delays or losses
  • Headache
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability or aggressiveness
  • Paresthesia (tingling, burning or crawling sensation)
  • Poor appetite
  • School or learning problems
  • Sensory losses
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Sleepiness
  • Slow growth
  • Unexpected weight loss

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, lead poisoning can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • Seizure
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting

What causes lead poisoning?

Lead can be found in many places in the environment around you. It is found in soil near highways and houses, lead paint, lead bullets, lead solder used in crafts and older plumbing, fishing and curtain weights, some art supplies, pewter, some pottery and porcelain, and leaded glass. Lead poisoning can result from placing lead objects in your mouth, placing fingers in your mouth after handling lead, or from breathing dust that contains lead.

What are the risk factors for lead poisoning?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing lead poisoning. Not all people with risk factors will get lead poisoning. Risk factors for lead poisoning include:

  • Certain folk remedies, such as azarcon, ba-baw-san, Daw Tway, ghasard, greta, and others

  • Certain hobbies, such as staining glass, bullet making, making fishing sinkers, oil painting, and using indoor firing ranges

  • Exposure to imported toys with lead content

  • Exposure to lead dust

  • Exposure to pre-1978 house paint through dust, peeling paint, or cracking plaster

  • Exposure to soil with a high lead content

  • History of gunshot wounds or shrapnel

  • Home remodels

  • Occupational exposures

  • Old plumbing

  • Use of cosmetics that contain lead, such as lipsticks or kohl eyeliner

  • Use of lead crystal decanters

  • Use of lead-glazed pottery, china, ceramics, or porcelain

Reducing your risk of lead poisoning

You may be able to lower your risk of lead poisoning by:

  • Avoiding storing food or drink in containers that might contain lead

  • Filtering your water or using bottled water if your tap water contains lead

  • Finding out if there is lead paint in your house

  • Dusting your house regularly

  • Removing old toys and furniture that may have been painted with lead paint from your house

  • Running water before drinking it or using it to cook

  • Using only cold water for drinking and cooking

  • Washing your children’s hands and faces frequently if you live in a house with lead paint or if your soil is contaminated

  • Washing your hands prior to eating

  • Wet mopping floors and wet wiping window sills

How is lead poisoning treated?

Treatment of lead poisoning begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life. Regular medical care allows a health care professional to provide early screening tests. Regular medical care also provides an opportunity for your health care professional to evaluate symptoms and your risks for developing lead poisoning promptly.

Common treatments for lead poisoning

If lead poisoning develops, treatment may include:

  • Admittance to a critical care unit for severe toxicity
  • Airway protection for seizures or coma
  • Bowel irrigation to wash lead particles out of the gut
  • Chelation therapy to bind and remove lead from the body
  • Education regarding lead exposure
  • Extended follow-up to observe for ongoing exposures and to manage complications
  • Gastric lavage to remove lead particles from the stomach
  • Prevention of further exposure
  • Treatment of symptoms as needed

What are the potential complications of lead poisoning?

In some people, especially infants and children, complications of untreated lead poisoning can be serious or even life threatening. You can help minimize the risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you or your children. Complications of lead poisoning include:

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Attention and concentration problems
  • Behavioral changes, such as increased aggression or irritability
  • Hearing loss
  • Infertility
  • Kidney disease
  • Learning disability
  • Long-term cognitive deficits
  • Persistent seizures
  • Sensory losses
  • Slowed growth
  • Unconsciousness and coma
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 18
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  4. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.