Symptoms Of Lead Poisoning: Causes, Diagnosis And Treatment

Lead is a poisonous heavy metal. It can cause serious health issues if swallowed or inhaled in any form. Lead poisoning can be acute or chronic. Slowly and gradually lead can get accumulated if the body is constantly exposed to it. Chronic poisoning occurs due to environmental and occupational exposure while acute poisoning occurs if lead is either inhaled or ingested in large amount.

Lead toxicity can cause damage to nervous system, blood, kidney and various other organs and tissues. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning as this heavy metal is used in number of substances that they come across.

It is used in paints, pencil, ceramic ware, gasoline, batteries, toys etc.

The damage done to the body due to lead toxicity cannot be reversed. Treatment consists of chelation therapy, EDTA, gastric lavage and prevention of further exposure.

What Are The Causes Of Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs either through its ingestion or inhalation of lead dust. The metal is easily absorbed through the gut and from the lungs. After absorption in body it forms complexes with oxygen and other substances and inhibits function of vital enzymes. Since lead has no smell or taste, most cases of lead poisoning are accidental.

Below are given common sources of lead and its exposure;

  • House paints.
  • Soil contaminated with car fuel, exhaust.
  • Workers are exposed to lead in industries where lead is used such as smelting, battery making, glass industry and ship building.
  • Lead is used in toy making.
  • Air can be contaminated with car emission and industrial emission.
  • Lead is also present in food storage articles such as ceramic pots, lead soldered cans.
  • Lead is present in all batteries that include batteries used in torch, car and other vehicles.
  • Many types of eyeliner contain lead.
  • Bullets.
  • Lead poisoning can also occur after consuming illicit liquor as it can be contaminated with lead.
  • Accidental swallowing of lead shots especially by children.
  • Chronic sniffing of petrol can produce lead poisoning.
  • Many herbal products are known to contain significant amount of heavy metal.

Signs And Symptoms Of Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning can damage various systems therefore the symptoms may vary in large number of people. Often they are vague. Acute lead poisoning is uncommon. It may occur only if large quantities of lead of inhalation or ingestion of lead containing products. Most of the symptoms are chronic caused due to repeated exposure of lead in small amount.

Characteristic of chronic poisoning:

Chronic poisoning is more common. It presents with following symptoms such as;

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Headache
  • Sleeplessness
  • Loss of memory
  • Numbness in limbs
  • Mental irritation, nervousness and tremors.
  • Lead lines are grayish lines at the junction of teeth and gums.
  • Pale skin, tongue, lips and nails due to anemia.
  • Reduced kidney function.
  • Low mental IQ in children.
  • Short stature in children.

Characteristic of acute poisoning are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Renal failure
  • Abnormal gait
  • Muscle weakness
  • Foot and wrist drop
  • Convulsion and coma

Diagnosis And Treatment Of Lead Poisoning

Since in many cases the symptoms of lead poisoning are vague and mimic symptoms of various other conditions, physician will rely on medical history, examination and blood test to diagnose lead poisoning. He will recommend doing certain blood tests that will measure the amount of lead in the blood.

Normally blood lead levels are below 20 micrograms per deciliter. In case of acute ingestion, abdominal X-ray may show radio-opaque lead chips.

The first step of treatment for lead toxicity is to prevent the patient from further exposure to lead. If there is history of recent ingestion of lead containing substance, gastric wash or bowel wash is useful to remove lead containing foreign bodies.

Chelation therapy is beneficial in potentially dangerous lead intoxication. In this therapy a chelating agent is used that binds the heavy metal and finally excretes from urine and stool. It is useful in chronic lead poisoning.
Activated charcoal and a chemical called EDTA is also used to flush out accumulated lead from the system.

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