What Is Argyria?

Argyria is a condition in which the skin turns a blue/gray color due to ingesting or being exposed to silver. Also known as argyrosis, argyriasis, or amalgam tattoo, it is a rare condition.

Although people come into contact with very tiny amounts of silver daily, the amounts are so small that the body easily excretes them. However, if exposure to silver is either prolonged or in large quantities, it can lead to argyria. 

Silver bars

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Argyria Symptoms

Chronic or overexposure to products containing silver can cause an irreversible color change to the skin. The skin becomes a blue/gray color, also affecting the lips, gums, nail beds, nasal passages, internal organs, and membranes of the eyes.

Once the skin has changed color, it is permanent. There is no known way of removing the silver deposits from the affected tissues.

Argyria and Sun Exposure

The blue/gray discoloration seen in the skin is especially prominent in areas exposed to the sun. This is thought to be due to a photochemical reaction similar to that seen in black and white photography. The skin areas exposed to the sun turn a much darker blue/gray than those protected from the sun.

Causes

Silver can build up in the body's tissues when it enters directly through the skin, mouth, or mucous membranes. It can be ingested or applied topically, and the three main factors that affect the severity of argyria include:

  • The level of silver in the body: The higher the level, the more prominent the skin color change.
  • Exposure to the sun: Exposed areas will be darker.
  • Time: The longer the exposure time, the more significant argyria becomes.

When ingested, colloidal silver can potentially cause argyria and toxicity. Once silver enters the body, a series of complicated chemical reactions cause argyria.

There are currently no oral prescription or over-the-counter drugs containing colloidal silver that are legal. However, there are still many colloidal silver products sold as dietary supplements.

There are several ways in which the body can be exposed to too much silver:

  • Occupational exposure: Working in a job that exposes you to silver daily like silver mining, making silver jewelry, or processing photographs
  • Taking colloidal silver dietary supplements
  • Using a cream/medication that contains silver
  • Using eye drops, nasal sprays, or cosmetics that contain silver: Symptoms are usually localized to the eye area.
  • Acupuncture: Regular treatment with silver acupuncture needles can also cause very localized argyria. 

Silver's Positive Medical Uses

Silver has been used in medicine for centuries, and there are many positive uses. When used topically, it is known to have antibacterial properties. 

If silver is used in minimal amounts, topically only, it is not known to cause argyria symptoms. Silver can be found in several medicinal products today, including:

  • Bandages and dressing to treat burns and wounds
  • Eye drops for conjunctivitis in newborns
  • Silver sutures in surgery
  • Silver dental fillings
  • Acupuncture needles
  • Certain surgical implants

Many cosmetic and household products also utilize silver in their products like Band-Aids, deodorant, and cleaning products.

Diagnosis

A doctor can take urine, blood, and stool samples to identify recent silver exposure over the last week. 

A biopsy will also be taken to confirm the diagnosis. This is where a small piece of tissue is taken from the skin and examined under a microscope to identify the blue/gray pigmentation.

Other conditions can also cause a blue/gray discoloration of the skin that your physician will need to rule out, such as hemochromatosis, chrysiasis, and exogenous ochronosis.

Complications

Argyria is mainly a cosmetic condition and is not considered to be dangerous. However, it is irreversible. The significant change in skin color can cause people with argyria to feel symptoms of depression, anxiety or become socially withdrawn. It can have a substantial impact on a person's quality of life. 

Most people with argyria do not notice any adverse health effects as a result of their condition. However, in rare circumstances, colloidal silver can also potentially cause other complications when ingested, including:

  • Negatively interacting with certain medications: This can reduce how effective they are, increase side effects, and prevent the liver from functioning correctly.
  • Agranulocytosis: This is a rare condition where your bone marrow does not produce enough of a specific type of white blood cells. 
  • Pleural edema: This is excess fluid in the lungs.
  • Seizures
  • Muscle weakness
  • Vertigo 
  • Problems with vision and taste 
  • Possible disorders of the kidneys, liver, nervous system, and blood

Prevention

If you are worried about exposure to silver, there are preventative measures that you can take:

  • If you work with silver, use protective clothing and eyewear to prevent exposure.
  • Be careful when choosing dietary supplements/medicines and check the ingredients for colloidal silver.
  • Avoid using cosmetics containing silver on your skin.
  • Wear high sun protection factor sunscreen and limit sun exposure.

Treatment

If silver exposure is confirmed, your doctor will advise you on the steps you need to take to minimize silver exposure, including the preventative measures above. 

There is no cure for argyria. However, recent studies indicate that a specific laser treatment can help improve the discoloration of the skin. This QS laser treatment requires further research into its effects on argyria.  

A doctor may recommend using a 5% hydroquinone cream on your skin, which can sometimes lighten areas of hyperpigmentation. As sun exposure is known to cause argyria to darken, it is advised to use high factor sunscreen and cover your skin as much as possible when in the sun.

If you were taking silver to treat a health condition, then you will need to stop using it to prevent argyria symptoms from worsening. It is best to speak to your doctor about what alternatives you can take to treat your condition/symptoms. 

Coping 

Cosmetically, you can wear makeup to hide the discoloration caused by argyria. Choosing the right clothing can also help you to hide areas of your skin that are significantly affected.

However, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, stress, or anxiety related to argyria, there are many support options available. Counseling and talking therapies can help you navigate your feelings and provide you with techniques to cope with living with argyria.

If you are feeling anxious or depressed because of argyria, then speak to your doctor. They can refer you to a licensed therapist to help you with the feelings you are experiencing. 

A Word From Verywell 

Argyria is usually not life-threatening; however, there is no cure. If you are concerned about occupational exposure to silver, ensure you have protective clothing and eyewear for your job. 

If you decide to take a dietary supplement containing colloidal silver, be aware that it has no known benefits when ingested, injected, or inhaled. It can do more harm than good, and argyria is irreversible. 

Always consult your physician when you have a health concern and decide to start a new medicine or alternative treatment so that they can provide you with medical advice. 

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