Definition

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.

How common is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is very common. 1 in 40 children ages 1-5 years old have blood lead levels that are considered unsafe (over 5 µg/dL). Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

Initially, lead poisoning can be hard to detect — even people who seem healthy can have high blood levels of lead. Signs and symptoms usually don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.

Lead poisoning symptoms in children

Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

  • Developmental delay
  • Learning difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures
  • Eating things, such as paint chips, that aren’t food (pica)

Lead poisoning symptoms in newborns

Babies exposed to lead before birth might:

  • Be born prematurely
  • Have lower birth weight
  • Have slowed growth

Lead poisoning symptoms in adults

Although children are primarily at risk, lead poisoning is also dangerous for adults. Signs and symptoms in adults might include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Difficulties with memory or concentration
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mood disorders
  • Reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant women

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when lead is ingested. Breathing in dust that contains lead can also cause it. You cannot smell or taste lead and it’s not visible to the naked eye.

In the United States, lead used to be common in house paint and gasoline. These products are not produced with lead any longer. However, lead is still present everywhere. It is especially found in older houses.

Common sources of lead include:

  • House paint made before 1978
  • Toys and household items painted before 1976
  • Toys made and painted outside the united states
  • Bullets, curtain weights, and fishing sinkers made of lead
  • Pipes and sink faucets, which can contaminate drinking water
  • Soil polluted by car exhaust or chipping house paint
  • Paint sets and art supplies
  • Jewelry, pottery, and lead figures
  • Storage batteries
  • Kohl or kajal eyeliners
  • Some traditional ethnic medicines

Risk factors

What increases my risk for lead poisoning?

There are many risk factors for lead poisoning, such as:

  • Infants and young children are more likely to be exposed to lead than are older children. They might chew paint that flakes off walls and woodwork, and their hands can be contaminated with lead dust. Young children also absorb lead more easily, and it’s more harmful for them than it is for adults and older children.
  • Living in an older home. Although the use of lead-based paints has been banned since the 1970s, older homes and buildings often retain remnants of this paint. People renovating an older home are at even higher risk.
  • Certain hobbies. Making stained glass and some jewelry requires the use of lead solder. Refinishing old furniture might put you in contact with layers of lead paint.
  • Living in developing countries. Developing countries often have less strict rules regarding exposure to lead than do developed countries. American families who adopt a child from another country might want to have the child’s blood tested for lead poisoning. Immigrant and refugee children also should be tested.
  • Lead can harm an unborn child, so pregnant women or women likely to become pregnant should be especially careful to avoid exposure to lead.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is lead poisoning diagnosed?

Lead poisoning is diagnosed with a blood lead test. This test is performed on a standard blood sample.

Lead is common in the environment. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports that no amount of lead in the blood is safe. It is known that levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter can be associated with health problems in children.

Additional tests could include blood tests to look at the amount of iron storing cells in the blood, X-rays, and possibly a bone marrow biopsy.

How is lead poisoning treated?

The first step of treatment is to locate and remove the source of the lead. Keep children away from the source. If it cannot be removed, it should be sealed. Call your local health department for information on how to remove lead. They can also help you reduce the likelihood of lead exposure.

In more severe cases, a procedure known as chelation therapy can be used. This treatment binds to lead that has accumulated in your body. The lead is then excreted in your urine.

Activated charcoal can be used to bind the lead in the gastrointestinal tract and encourage elimination via defecation. A chemical called EDTA may also be used

Even with treatment, it can be hard to reverse the effects of chronic exposure.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage lead poisoning?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with lead poisoning:

  • Wash hands and toys. To help reduce hand-to-mouth transfer of contaminated dust or soil, wash your children’s hands after outdoor play, before eating and at bedtime. Wash their toys regularly.
  • Clean dusty surfaces. Clean your floors with a wet mop and wipe furniture, windowsills and other dusty surfaces with a damp cloth.
  • Remove shoes before entering the house. This will help keep lead-based soil outside.
  • Run cold water. If you have older plumbing containing lead pipes or fittings, run your cold water for at least a minute before using. Don’t use hot tap water to make baby formula or for cooking.
  • Prevent children from playing on soil. Provide them with a sandbox that’s covered when not in use. Plant grass or cover bare soil with mulch.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Regular meals and good nutrition might help lower lead absorption. Children especially need enough calcium, vitamin C and iron in their diets to help keep lead from being absorbed.
  • Keep your home well-maintained. If your home has lead-based paint, check regularly for peeling paint and fix problems promptly. Try not to sand, which generates dust particles that contain lead.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: July 20, 2017 | Last Modified: July 20, 2017

Want to live your best life?
Get the Hello Doktor Daily newsletter for health tips, wellness updates and more.