What Is Nitrate Poisoning?
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Nitrate Poisoning and Its Impacts

Published on May 02, 2023 and last reviewed on Aug 17, 2023   -  5 min read


Nitrate poisoning occurs due to consumption of contaminated drinking water or excessive consumption of nitrate-rich foods. Read the article below to know more.


When nitrates or nitrites are consumed in large quantities, it can lead to nitrate poisoning in humans. Consuming nitrate contaminated food or water, as well as coming into contact with industrial chemicals and agricultural fertilizers, can all result in nitrate poisoning. In certain situations, this illness can be life-threatening and cause serious health problems.

What Are the Causes of Nitrate Poisoning in Humans?

Natural substances known as nitrates and nitrites are found in the environment, including in soil, water, and air. When chemicals enter the body, exposure occurs. Nitrate and nitrite exposure can happen in a number of ways:

1. Drinking Water

  • Water is the primary source of nitrates and nitrogen-based fertilizers that leak into shallow drinking water wells, which are typically found in rural areas.

  • Other nitrate sources include animal waste and malfunctioning sewage systems. Nitrate poisoning can occur in infants who are bottle-fed when nitrate-contaminated drinking water is used to dilute formula.

2. Diet

3. Preservatives

  • They are frequently employed as preservatives in the food sector to stop bacterial development. Bacteria in the body convert nitrates to nitrites, and too much nitrite in the body can be hazardous.

4. Other Drugs

  • Such as creams used to treat burns, are another cause of nitrate exposure.

What Are the Potential Hazards Caused by Nitrates?

Nitrates come in a variety of forms, and they all react differently in the body. It is sometimes forgotten that the inorganic nitrates present in contaminated well water are a source of nitrate exposure that can have major negative consequences on health.

Common Symptoms Include

  • Bluish skin from a lack of oxygen (often initially detected around mouth/lips) is one sign of nitrate/nitrite poisoning.

  • Breathing difficulties; nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; dehydration (caused by a loss of body fluids);

  • A quick heartbeat, lightheadedness, weakness, coma, and convulsions.

Usually, nitrates that are consumed or drunk enter the body do no harm. However, occasionally, illnesses like diarrhea and dehydration (a body's lack of fluid) can result nitrates to convert into nitrites in higher quantities.

Other Adverse Effects Include

  • Formation of Methemoglobin: These nitrites in the blood alter hemoglobin, or the molecules that assist in transporting oxygen throughout the body. Because of nitrates, the body may have less oxygen available for effective operation. This condition is referred to as methemoglobinemia

    • Methemoglobinemia Levels of 30 % to 40 %: Early symptoms of toxicosis include a rapid, weak heartbeat with a lowered body temperature, muscle tremors, weakness, and ataxia.

    • Methemoglobinemia Levels of 60 %: Lethargy, convulsions, and coma are caused by hemoglobin levels of 60% or more.

    • Methemoglobin Levels above 70%: These are often considered fatal, can lead to coma, convulsions, and death, while certain cases of survival have been documented at levels as high as 94%.

  • Blue Baby Syndrome: Infants are more at risk for methemoglobinemia brought on by nitrate poisoning because of the increased percentage of fetal hemoglobin in their blood, which is more easily oxidized. The disease known as "blue baby syndrome," which causes the skin to become blue owing to the presence of methemoglobin in the blood, can affect infants.

  • Effects on Reproduction and Development: Environmental nitrates and nitrites may raise the risk of problems during pregnancy for mothers.

    • Preeclampsia, threatened abortion, or anemia

    • Recent epidemiological studies have revealed a connection between maternal consumption of nitrate from drinking water, such as intrauterine growth limitation, spontaneous abortions, and a variety of birth abnormalities.

How Is the Diagnosis of Nitrate Poisoning Done?

  • Usually, a physical examination, medical history, and laboratory testing are used to diagnose nitrate toxicity.

  • A screening test which assesses the color of a few drops of blood deposited on white filter paper and other tests can assess how nitrates impair the body's ability to carry oxygen to the areas that need it most.

  • This supports therapeutic strategies for further management.

  • Blood tests may be run by the physician to check for nitrite and methemoglobin concentrations that are abnormally high.

  • Nitrate levels may also be checked via a urine test. In certain circumstances, a liver or kidney biopsy may be necessary to gauge the level of nitrate poisoning-related damage.

What Is the Treatment for Nitrate Poisoning?

  • Treatment of nitrate poisoning typically involves removing the source of exposure and providing supportive care to manage symptoms.

  • In cases of mild exposure, symptoms may resolve on their own without medical intervention. However, hospitalization may be required in extreme circumstances to provide oxygen therapy, intravenous fluids, and medication to reduce methemoglobin levels.

  • For individuals with severe methemoglobinemia, the first-line antidote treatment recommended is methylene blue. It is suggested that patients receive methylene blue at a dose of 1-2 mg/kg body weight intravenously over a period of five minutes if they have methemoglobin levels >30 %. After a single dosage, methemoglobin concentration typically falls dramatically within 1-2 hours; further doses could be required. In dire circumstances, a blood transfusion is necessary to replace damaged red blood cells.

How to Avoid Prevention of Nitrate Poisoning?

  • Avoiding exposure to polluted food, water, and industrial chemicals is essential for preventing nitrate poisoning.

  • By making sure that their water supply is free of toxins, staying away from fruits and vegetables that have been exposed to agricultural fertilizers, and avoiding processed meats that contain nitrites, people may lessen their chance of exposure.

  • Young children, babies, and pregnant women are more susceptible to nitrate poisoning and should be regularly watched for methemoglobinemia symptoms.


Human nitrate poisoning is a hazardous disorder that can cause major health problems, including death. This illness is brought on by consuming high levels of nitrates and nitrites, either from drinking tainted water or food or through exposure to chemical fertilizers and industrial chemicals. Treatment for nitrate poisoning mainly entails eliminating the exposure source and providing supportive care to manage symptoms. Nitrate poisoning symptoms might vary based on exposure level and individual sensitivity. People should take efforts to lower their risk of exposure in order to prevent exposure to contaminated food, water, and industrial chemicals, which causes nitrate poisoning.

Last reviewed at:
17 Aug 2023  -  5 min read




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