First aid and Emergencies

Lead Poisoning - Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

Written by
Dr. Sneha Kannan
and medically reviewed by Dr. Arul Amuthan

Published on Nov 11, 2019   -  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:

  • Premature birth.

  • Low birth weight.

  • Delayed growth.

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.

Last reviewed at:
11 Nov 2019  -  5 min read


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