The Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning can easily go undetected but can be very serious. How can you recognize it? What are the symptoms of lead poisoning? Learn more in this article!
The Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

Last update: 24 July, 2021

Lead poisoning is a fairly rare medical condition, but it can lead to severe complications if left untreated. This substance is a heavy metal that serves no function for the human body, so any amount of it is toxic. Because of this, it’s important to understand the symptoms of lead poisoning.

In the past, lead was commonly used in paints, fuels, and other products. Fortunately, research and public policy aimed at reducing its use have proven effective. Even so, isolated cases can happen when people are exposed at their jobs or are living in old places.

Its symptoms are very nonspecific and the main risk groups are pregnant women and young children.

Do you want to know more about it?

In this article, we’ll tell you all the details.

What causes lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when a person ingests or inhales a large amount of this metal. Until recently, it was a fairly common problem since many products and fuels contained significant amounts of lead. 

However, due to the intervention of international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), cases have been progressively decreasing. In particular, you can find lead in the following objects and places:

  • House paint
  • Old toys
  • Pipes and taps
  • Car batteries
  • Some pieces of glass and ceramics
  • Pellets
  • Some cosmetics
  • Floors, especially if gasoline or paint have been spilled on them.

In the late 1970s, some measures were put in place to control lead poisoning in the United States. As a result, most paints that contained lead had to change their manufacturing processes.

Exposure to lead on the job is common in ship repair, construction, mining, plastics or batteries manufacturing, and plumbing.

In theory, these professions should have their own prevention systems, based on an occupational health system. However, in some cases, work-related accidents still happen.

These are paint rollers.

The symptoms of lead poisoning in adults

Depending on the degree of intoxication, the symptoms of lead poisoning can range from very mild to even fatal. Since the symptoms are quite nonspecific, it’s unlikely that you will be able to detect the problem promptly. Some patients have the following symptoms:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Anemia
  • Headaches, abdominal, muscle, and joint pain
  • Problems with short-term memory and concentration
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Irritability

These symptoms tend to develop gradually. In addition, as long as you come in contact with the toxin (for example, at work or home), your symptoms could get worse over time.

The symptoms of lead poisoning in newborns

Since lead can permeate the placental barrier, it can affect the developing fetus during pregnancy. The fact that many cases of lead poisoning can go unnoticed in mothers is a serious problem for babies.

Lead poisoning could result in serious obstetric complications. These could include miscarriage, premature labor, and intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). In rare cases, the complications could be fatal.

If the child is born, they will be very susceptible to medical complications, especially before the age of five. In fact, fatal encephalopathies associated with lead poisoning have been reported.

Even if patients receive timely treatment, there could be sequelae. Some of the complications the baby may experience throughout their life are cognitive impairment, irritability, and memory problems.

How is lead poisoning diagnosed?

Lead poisoning is usually not actively treated in hospitals, except for very specific types of occupational or home exposure. In fact, if the patient is only showing very mild symptoms, the doctor may even misdiagnose the issue. 

The only way to objectively diagnose the disease is through blood tests that will measure the lead concentration. The amount will depend on each lab, but, since lead has almost no functions in the body, any level could be considered toxic.

Major medical complications can occur above 5 µg / dL, especially in children under five years of age. Some patients may have levels of 150 µg / dL or more. 

Additional tests

If you require hospitalization or subsequent tests, it’s very likely the doctor will order the following:

  • Complete hematic biometry (BHC) or complete hematology (HC): this allows the doctor to see your hemoglobin levels, which may decrease with chronic poisoning.
  • Ecosonogram or abdominal radiography: these tests help to rule out the possibility of inflammatory lesions
  • Biopsy or bone marrow aspirate: this test is used to rule out other causes of anemia, especially when other levels in the blood are altered. These results are usually normal.
  • Long bone x-ray: because lead tends to accumulate in bone tissue, this test would provide data such as estimated exposure time and the severity of the poisoning. Some researchers even use it as one of the best diagnostic indicators, as this study suggests.

How do you treat it?

After the doctor makes a diagnosis, treatment will depend on the severity of the symptoms and the estimated intoxication time.

  • If the patient has mild symptoms, careful observation and oral medications may be prescribed. In severe cases, they will require hospitalization and intravenous therapy.
  • In cases of acute poisoning, the patient is more likely to need to stay in the hospital. Chronic conditions, depending on the severity, could be managed more conservatively.

In either case, treatment consists of basic supportive measures and medications. The supportive measures will require intravenous solutions and gastrointestinal lavage, whiles the drugs will chelate the compounds.

The latter term refers to drugs that have the ability to bind to heavy metals in the blood. In turn, this will decrease the toxicity and stimulate its elimination through urine or bile.

A woman has a tube in her arm.

Pharmacotherapy

Currently, there are four medications for lead poisoning. However, not all are approved globally, as there are specific regulations in various countries.

  • Calcium disodium edetate: Also known as EDTA, patients receive this intravenously and usually in cycles.
  • Dimercaprol: this medication can be administered intramuscularly.
  • Penicillamine: this is used for long-term oral treatment, so the patient doesn’t need to stay in the hospital
  • Succimer: patients take this orally.

All of these medications require a prescription. Depending on the patient’s individual characteristics, complications such as hepatitis, liver failure, and allergic reactions may occur.

Lead poisoning prevention

The most common source of lead exposure today is contact with old products and exposure in the work environment. The first case is associated with paint marketed before international regulations regarding lead in industrial settings.

If there is a problem with exposure to lead poisoning, remember the following:

  • Wash surfaces that may be contaminated.
  • Prioritize hand washing before and after eating, especially in children.
  • When doing old home repairs, don’t sand the surface manually, and be sure to use protection.
  • Maintain a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Be sure to only drink water that has been adequately filtrated and purified.
  • When you are handling pellets, be sure to not put them in your mouth.

If you are experiencing symptoms associated with lead poisoning, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. If the symptoms are mild, you can make an appointment in advance. However, if you are experiencing moderate or severe symptoms, go to the emergency room immediately. 

Final recommendations in the case of lead poisoning

Even though lead poisoning is rare, it’s important to see your doctor in case of probable exposure. This is especially important for groups at increased risk, such as pregnant women and children. Even low levels can cause permanent sequelae.

Which specialist to see?

Most medical specialists can diagnose lead poisoning through the use of specific tests. Therefore, your first step should be going to a family doctor, internist, or pediatrician. If you then need another evaluation from a specialist, your doctor will guide you through the procedure.

How to prepare for the consultation

If you have scheduled a doctor’s appointment, try to follow these recommendations:

  • Try to think back to when you started experiencing symptoms, as well as any medications you took to relieve those symptoms.
  • If you have a pre-existing condition, make it known right away. This includes chronic conditions and allergies.
  • If you have any recent lab tests, take them to the appointment with you, regardless of format.
  • Do you take any medications? Bring it to the appointment or write its name down on a piece of paper. If you were to need any additional medications, your doctor needs to know about any other medications to avoid negative side effects.
  • Try to identify a specific cause of the lead exposure. Refer to the previous sections for some of the most common sources.
  • Go with someone else. Sometimes, anxiety may prevent you from clearly remembering your doctor’s recommendations.

Immediate intervention in lead poisoning cases is decisive for prognosis. Therefore, if you suspect lead poisoning, it’s best to seek proper medical attention. Keep it in mind!

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