Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

Most people with lead poisoning don't present any symptoms at all, resulting in the vast majority of cases going undiagnosed. It's not until a dangerous amount of lead has built up in the body that many of the signs and symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, and pain begin to appear. Learn what to look for.

lead poisoning symptoms
Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018. 

Frequent Symptoms 

Because lead poisoning builds up over time, symptoms are often not as immediate or as recognizable as you would get with an infectious disease like a cold or the flu.

How quickly they appear—if they appear at all—and how obvious they are when they do will depend on the person, and many of the symptoms are often mistakenly attributed to other things, making them easy to overlook or dismiss.

That being said, there are a few things that could indicate a person has lead poisoning. These include: 

  • Decreased cognitive abilities, especially reduced ability to focus on, learn, and remember new things
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Abdominal pain or "stomach aches" 
  • Headache
  • Constipation 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tingling in the hands or feet

It's important to note that exposure to even low amounts of lead can affect how a person thinks, learns, and grows. For that reason, there is no level of lead that is considered to be safe—especially for young children.

Many of these symptoms are also general and can be caused for various reasons, which is why it's important to visit a doctor if you notice any changes. in most cases, it's likely nothing serious, but still important to get checked out.

Rare Symptoms

The more lead a person is exposed to, and the more time they are exposed to it, the greater the severity of the symptoms. In rare cases, individuals can develop a purplish discoloration along the gums, commonly referred to as "lead lines," after prolonged exposure to large amounts of lead.

Other symptoms that can be seen after moderate or high doses of lead include:

  • Constipation
  • Tremors
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Severe abdominal cramping 
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nerve damage, include muscle weakness and paralysis 
  • Brain injury, which can cause seizures or loss of consciousness

Complications 

Lead exposure over a long period of time can significantly—and sometimes irreparably—affect different systems in the human body, including the nervous, circulatory, and reproductive systems, as well as the bones and kidneys. This may result in potentially serious issues, such as: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease 
  • Kidney failure 
  • Infertility
  • Cancer

Certain groups are also more susceptible than others to the effects of lead poisoning, most notably young children and pregnant women.

This is why prevention is so important, as well as diagnosis for proper treatment.

Children Under Age 6

Children are of particular concern for lead poisoning because their brains are still developing. Too much exposure to lead during early childhood can cause development issues, including damage to their developing nervous systems, intelligence, and behavior.

This can lead to challenges at school, growth delays, and behavioral issues. Research has shown that kids with a blood lead level of 5 µg/dL (five micrograms per deciliter) had an IQ roughly 6 points lower than their peers on average.

Pregnant Women  

If a pregnant woman is exposed to lead, it can cross the placental barrier and potentially cause damage to the growing, unborn child.

Even small amounts of lead exposure can affect a baby's intelligence and behavior later in life.

In some cases, it can also lead to miscarriages or stillbirths.

When to See a Doctor 

Any delay in treatment could lead to severe and lifelong health issues, especially in young children.

Because most cases of lead poisoning don't have any symptoms, don't wait until they appear to talk to your doctor if you suspect lead poisoning or even exposure to lead.

He or she will likely ask questions about sources of lead in your home, school, or workplace, as well as check for physical signs of lead poisoning, including running a blood test. When speaking with your doctor, be sure to mention any cognitive or behavioral changes you've noticed, including difficulties focusing or being more irritable than normal.

Currently, health officials recommend all kids—even those who probably haven't been exposed to high levels of lead—be screened by ages 12 and 15 months to test their blood for high levels of lead.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the symptoms of chronic lead poisoning?

Chronic lead poisoning is caused by repeated low-level exposure to lead over a prolonged period of time. Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood changes, including depression and stupor
  • Slurring
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • Loss of coordination
  • An unhealthy, grayish skin pallor
  • A blue line along the gums (called a Burton line)
  • A bluish-black edging to teeth

What are the symptoms of acute lead poisoning?

Acute lead poisoning is caused by an intense exposure to lead over a short period of time. Symptoms include:

What are the signs of lead poisoning in children?

Because of their smaller size, children are more likely to develop symptoms sooner and show more profound neurological signs, such as irritability, learning difficulties, sluggishness, clumsiness, hearing loss, and pica (eating non-food substances like dirt or paint chips). Developmental delays and seizures are also possible.

Can lead poisoning harm a pregnancy?

Yes. Lead poisoning during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and low birth weight. It can slow growth and weight gain in newborns and may cause damage to the child’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system. Conversely, lead poisoning can lower the sperm count and make it difficult to conceive.

What are the long-term consequences of lead poisoning?

Even low levels of exposure can lead to kidney damage and hypertension and contribute to the onset of coronary artery disease. Exposure during childhood or pregnancy is linked to learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and antisocial behaviors. In adults, chronic lead exposure is linked to psychiatric problems and a decline in cognitive function.

Are the symptoms of lead poisoning reversible?

With chelation therapy (using agents that bind to lead and remove it from the body in urine), the effects of lead poisoning on the kidneys and blood may be reversed. However, damage to the brain and nervous system may be irreversible.

Can lead poisoning cause cancer?

Lead is a possible carcinogen, although studies are mixed as to the actual risk of cancer and at what level of exposure the risk increases. A 2012 study involving 4,114 lead workers reported that at levels of 30 μg/dL—three times the upper limit set by the CDC—the risk of esophageal cancer was increased by seven-fold (although no difference was seen with any other cancer type).

Can lead poisoning kill you?

Yes. Lead exposure worldwide is believed to cause over 500,000 deaths annually, mostly in the developing world. At high levels of exposure, lead poisoning can cause encephalitis (brain inflammation), leading to seizures, coma, and death from cardiorespiratory arrest. Chronic lead poisoning is associated with a reduced life expectancy, mainly due to heart disease.

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