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Lead Poisoning - Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

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Lead Poisoning - Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

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

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Arul Amuthan L

Published At November 11, 2019
Reviewed AtApril 2, 2024

Introduction:

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. 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.

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, one will only have signs and symptoms when dangerous amounts of lead accumulate. Children are more prone than adults. The symptoms are as follows:

In Infants:

  • Premature birth.

  • Low birth weight.

  • Delayed growth.

In Children:

  • Physical and mental growth delays.

  • Low IQ.

  • Learning difficulties.

  • Behavioral problems.

  • Irritability.

  • Weight loss.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Loss of interest.

  • Tiredness.

  • Stomach pain.

  • Hearing problems.

  • Constipation.

  • Hearing loss.

In Adults:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure).

  • Muscular pain.

  • Joint pain.

  • Hallucinations.

  • Tingling and numbness in extremities.

  • Anemia (lack of healthy red blood cells in the body).

  • Memory problems.

  • Difficulty concentrating.

  • Headache.

  • Mood swings.

  • Reduced sperm quality and quantity in men.

  • In women, stillbirth, premature birth, or miscarriage (loss of pregnancy).

Emergency Symptoms:

If a person notices the following symptoms, they must get immediate medical help.

  • Severe stomach cramps.

  • Muscle weakness.

  • Vomiting.

  • Unsteady gait.

  • Seizures (uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain).

  • Brain damage causes confusion and coma.

What Are the Causes of Lead Poisoning?

Lead is found in the earth's crust naturally. However, due to indiscriminate mining and burning of fossil fuels, lead is now found in the 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, and cosmetics.

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 cans, 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.

  • 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).

  • 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:

  • Blood Test - A blood lead test is performed to check the levels. Levels of even 5 micrograms (mg) per decilitres (dL) can cause symptoms in kids. In adults, levels of 45 micrograms/dL can cause symptoms.

  • X-rays.

  • Bone marrow biopsy.

  • Iron levels.

  • Complete blood count.

  • Erythrocyte protoporphyrin level.

How Is Lead Poisoning Treated?

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

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

  • Bowel Irrigation - The entire digestive tract is flushed out using a polyethylene glycol solution.

  • 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 the Complications Associated with Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning or exposure in a very small amount is known to cause toxicity in young children. The higher levels of exposure to lead can cause damage to the kidneys of children and adults, increase the risk of irreversible brain damage in children, and may also lead to unconsciousness, seizures, and death of a person.

What Are Ways to Prevent Lead Poisoning?

Some preventive measures include:

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

  • Always wash the hands before eating.

  • Keep the house clean and free of dust.

  • Always remove the shoes before walking into the house.

  • Let the water run for a minute before one uses it if the plumbing is old.

  • Kids must be asked to not touch the 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 the house is painted with lead-based paint, then it should be repaired.

Conclusion:

Lead is a fatal poison and a heavy metal. It can enter the body through the mouth or break in the skin and mucous membrane or can be inhaled, which then slowly accumulates in the body. Lead-based paints are 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 oneself and one's family from the ill effects of this heavy metal. As lead poisoning does not cause any symptoms in the initial stages, it is best to follow the preventive measures mentioned above 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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.

6.

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.

7.

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.

8.

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.

9.

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.

10.

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.

11.

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.
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Dr. Arul Amuthan L
Dr. Arul Amuthan L

Pharmacology

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