First aid and Emergencies Data Verified

Lead Poisoning - Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

Published on Nov 11, 2019 and last reviewed on Aug 17, 2022   -  5 min read


Lead poisoning, otherwise called plumbism, is a heavy metal poisoning that results from the presence of lead in the body. Learn about its symptoms, causes, and treatment.

Lead Poisoning - Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

What Is Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning results from the build-up of lead in the body, which usually takes many months or years. Lead can cause severe health problems even in smaller amounts, as it affects the bones, teeth, reproductive system, and heart. In children, lead exposure can result in severe mental and physical developmental abnormalities. Lead poisoning at very high levels can be fatal.

Lead is a fatal poison and a heavy metal. It can enter the body through the mouth or through breaks in the skin and mucous membrane or can be inhaled, which then gets slowly accumulated in the body.

Kids are more vulnerable to this type of poisoning. Keeping lead-based painted toys in their mouth and lead-dust are the most common causes of lead poisoning in children. It can also be caused by polluted air, water, and sand, lead-based paints used in old toys, art supplies, and gasoline products. Lead-based paints were being used to paint houses and water pipes, and some old buildings still have these paints.

Lead poisoning can be treated, but it is best to protect yourself and your family from the ill effects of this heavy metal.

What Symptoms Does Lead Poisoning Cause?

Lead poisoning does not cause any symptoms during the initial stages, so it is hard to detect. Patients seem healthy even when the blood levels of lead are alarmingly high. Usually, you will only have signs and symptoms when dangerous amounts of lead get accumulated. Children are more prone than adults. The symptoms are as follows:

In infants:

In children:

In adults:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure).

  • Muscular pain.

  • Joint pain.

  • Hallucinations.

  • Tingling and numbness in extremities.

  • Anemia.

  • Memory problems.

  • Difficulty to concentrate.

  • Headache.

  • Mood swings.

  • Reduced sperm quality and quantity in men.

  • In women, stillbirth, premature birth, or miscarriage.

Emergency symptoms:

If you notice the following symptoms, get immediate medical help.

  • Severe stomach cramps.

  • Muscle weakness.

  • Vomiting.

  • Unsteady gait.

  • Seizures.

  • Brain damage causing confusion and coma.

What Are the Causes of Lead Poisoning?

Lead is found in the earth's crust naturally. But due to indiscriminate mining and burning of fossil fuels, lead is now found in air, water, and soil. Lead was being used in paint and gasoline, but not anymore. But it is still being used in batteries, water pipes, pottery, cosmetics, etc.

Paints containing lead can still be seen in old buildings and kid’s toys. Eating the fallen chips of these lead-based paint results in lead poisoning in children. The other sources are:

  • Water pipes - Brass and copper water pipes are soldered with lead can, which release lead into the passing water.

  • Food cans - Lead solder is also used in canned food containers in some countries.

  • Sand - Lead from gasoline or paint gets mixed with soil.

  • House dust - Lead from the paints of old houses gets mixed with the dust, which can be inhaled.

  • Pottery - Some ceramics and porcelain pots are glazed with glazes containing lead. This lead can leech into the food being served in such pots.

  • Toys - Lead-based paint was being used in toys.

  • Kohl - Kohl and some other cosmetics contain lead.

  • Herbal medicines - Lead can be found in some herbal and folk medicines. Some examples are Ghasard, Daw tway, and Greta.

  • Tamarind - Tamarind is used in food and candies in some countries, which might be contaminated with lead.

  • Batteries.

  • Lead bullets.

What Are the Factors That Increase the Risk of Lead Poisoning?

Individuals who are at more risk for lead poisoning are:

  • Infants and young children.

  • People living in old buildings.

  • People who make stained glass and jewelry using lead solder.

  • Pregnant women.

How Does Lead Affect the Body?

Lead affects the enzymes and the nervous system the most.

1) Enzymes - Lead interrupts the function of enzymes in the body. It binds to enzymes and prevents it from performing its necessary actions. It affects enzymes like delta-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase (ALAD) and ferrochelatase, which are needed for the production of heme (a molecule that contains iron).

2) Nervous system - Lead easily passes through the blood-brain barrier and affects the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, which are the centers for mood regulation and making decisions.

How to Diagnose Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning is diagnosed with the help of:

  1. Blood test - A blood lead test is performed to check the levels. Levels of even 5 microgram/dL can cause symptoms in kids. In adults, the levels of 45 microgram/dL can cause symptoms.

  2. X-rays.

  3. Bone marrow biopsy.

  4. Iron levels.

  5. Complete blood count.

  6. Erythrocyte protoporphyrin level.

How Is Lead Poisoning Treated?

The source of poisoning needs to be identified and eliminated. To reduce the levels of lead in blood, the following treatment options are available:

  1. Chelation therapy - Medication is given, which binds with lead and passes through the urine and stools.

  2. Bowel irrigation - The entire digestive tract is flushed out using polyethylene glycol solution.

  3. Gastric lavage - Here, the stomach is washed out using a tube, which is inserted through the throat. Saline is used in this process.

What Are Ways to Prevent Lead Poisoning?

Some preventive measures include:

  • Wash your kid’s hands properly after they touch or play on the ground and toys.

  • Always wash your hands before eating.

  • Keep your house clean and free of dust.

  • Always remove your shoes before walking into the house.

  • Let the water run for a minute before you use it if the plumbing is old.

  • Tell your kid not to touch soil or grass with bare hands.

  • Eating a diet rich in calcium, vitamin C, and iron prevents the absorption of lead in the body.

  • If your house is painted with lead-based paint, then get it repaired.

As lead poisoning does not cause any symptoms in the initial stages, it is best to follow these preventive measures to avoid exposure. Mild to moderate poisoning can be treated effectively in adults without any permanent damage. But in children, it causes permanent developmental problems. To know more, consult a doctor online.

Frequently Asked Questions


How Can One Prevent Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning can be prevented by -
- Maintaining good hand hygiene. 
- Keeping the house well-maintained and clean.
- Refraining from wearing soiled shoes at home.
- Running cold water.
- Preventing children from playing in the soil. 
- Consuming a diet rich in calcium, vitamin C, and iron that prevents lead absorption in the body.
- Repainting the house with lead-free paints.


Can Lead Poisoning Be Stopped?

Yes, lead poisoning can be managed and stopped by interpreting lead concentrations in the blood. Medical doctors often use gastrointestinal decontamination to neutralize lead concentrations. The use of chelating agents can stop lead poisoning from worsening. The use of nutritional supplements containing vitamin C, calcium, and iron can prevent further lead absorption in the body.


What Removes Lead From the Body?

Lead can be removed from the body using chelation therapy. The therapy involves medications that remove toxic metals from the body. The metals are excreted in urine or stool by the liver and kidneys. Normal kidney and liver function tests are performed to ensure optimum organ functioning before starting chelation therapy.


What Organs Are Affected by Lead?

Almost all body organs are affected by lead poisoning. Organs that are most affected by lead poisoning are –
- Brain - Low intelligence quotient (IQ) levels, hearing loss, coma, death.
- Heart - Lead poisoning increases the risk of high blood pressure.
- Stomach - Stomach pain and cramps.
- Kidneys - Presence of blood in urine and kidney failure.
- Reproductive organs - Low sperm count and damaged reproductive organs.


What Are the Long-Term Side Effects of Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning has long-term side effects on almost all organs in the body. Lead poisoning in children can impact and cause slow growth of bones. Side effects on the brain include low intelligence quotient (IQ) levels, hearing loss, convulsions, loss of body movement, coma, and death. Lead poisoning also increases the risk of hypertension in older age. In addition, chronic inflammation due to lead poisoning can also lead to kidney failure and urinary changes. Long-term effects also impact reproductive organs causing low sperm count and damaged reproductive organs.


How Is Lead Poisoning Diagnosed?

A simple blood test is done as an investigation procedure to confirm the diagnosis of lead poisoning. Lead levels in the blood of 5 mcg/dL indicate lead poisoning in children. Thus, doctors recommend routine blood tests periodically in children with these levels. Lead levels higher than 45 mcg/dL require professional treatments like chelation therapy, nutritional therapy, and kidney and liver monitoring. One must watch for signs and symptoms of lead poisoning and consult a doctor.


Does Coffee Contain Lead?

Some varieties of coffee may contain lead. However, according to research, lead in coffee is within the regulatory limits. One must be aware and check the labels for coffees that contain lead. One must be aware of lead poisoning and the effects of lead poisoning while purchasing coffee products.


Can Lead Poisoning Shorten Your Life?

Yes, lead poisoning affects almost every organ in the body and impacts the quality of life. Lead poisoning affects the heart, brain, kidneys, liver, bones, and reproductive organs. Effects of lead poisoning can have devastating effects ranging from mild to severe over a period of time. In some cases, lead poisoning can cause severe brain damage leading to coma and death.


Does Lead Poisoning Cause Permanent Brain Damage?

Yes, lead poisoning causes brain damage. Researches show any amount of lead exposure can damage the brain in several ways. It could cause low intelligence quotient levels, loss of body movement, hearing loss, stupor, coma, and even death. Hyperirritability and damaged nerves are also early signs that could indicate its impact on the brain.


Does Lead Affect Memory?

Yes, lead toxicity or excess levels of lead in the body could affect the neurological system and cause memory loss. Lead encephalopathy is the most severe neurological impact of lead poisoning that could cause brain damage. Symptoms of lead encephalopathy include irritability, headache, mental dullness, concentration problems, memory loss, tremors, and hallucinations within weeks of exposure. Chronic lead poisoning occurs over a while, resulting in mild to severe cognitive impairment.


Is Lead poisoning reversible?

Though some research shows lead poisoning can be reversible, some symptoms may be irreversible. Lead poisoning occurs via inhalation of lead particles. Once lead enters the body, it accumulates in various organs and causes damage. Lead poisoning can cause long-term effects on the heart, kidneys, brain, and liver. Damage to these organs is irreversible. However, early diagnosis and medical treatments that help excrete lead out of the body may reduce the symptoms. Vitamin C, calcium, and iron-rich diets can help reduce lead poisoning from worsening. In addition, chelating agents may be used to reverse the effects of lead in the body.

Last reviewed at:
17 Aug 2022  -  5 min read




Related Questions & Answers

What are the consequences of phenol ingestion?

Query: Hello doctor, My friend aged 30 had two drops of phenol mistaking for milk. He vomited and had lot of salt water. Please advice for any side effect.  Read Full »

HIV test was negative, but I am still worried. Please help.

Query: Hi doctor, After 15 months of unprotected sex, I went for HIV test called Comb AIDS test but, the result came back negative for both HIV-1 and 2. Again after three months, I redid the test, but even this time, the result was negative. I was not satisfied, so I went for ELISA tes...  Read Full »

Does an elevated WBC always indicate leukemia?

Query: Hello doctor, I got blood work done and WBC was 14.8 and absolute neutrophils were 10.9. I was suffering from sun poisoning and a sinus infection. I also suffer from severe anxiety and panic disorder. I just want to know if this is an indication of leukemia.  Read Full »

Popular Articles Most Popular Articles

Do you have a question on Complete Blood Count or Premature Baby?

Ask an expert Online

* guaranteed answer within 4 hours.

Disclaimer: Wellness medicine is not aimed to replace the services of your treating physician or allopathy medicines. Our site's information is to those who are willing to take responsibility for their health, being fully aware that the content published herein would not qualify as a prescription or specific medical advice. If users use the information and stop prescribed medication without their physician's consent, they bear full responsibility for their actions, and iCliniq-Wellness bears no responsibility for the same. Information on Wellness medicine should not be misinterpreted as a cure for any illness, as our body is complex and everyone reacts differently.

Disclaimer: No content published on this website is intended to be a substitute for professional medical diagnosis, advice or treatment by a trained physician. Seek advice from your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with questions you may have regarding your symptoms and medical condition for a complete medical diagnosis. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice because of something you have read on this website. Read our Editorial Process to know how we create content for health articles and queries.