Lead poisoning

Lead poisoning is the name given to the harm caused by the presence of lead in the body, usually from months or years of exposure to small amounts of lead in the environment. Lead poisoning can happen at any age, but it is more harmful to children under 6 years of age and is especially harmful to those younger than 3 years of age—it can permanently affect a child's physical health and mental development.

Symptoms of lead poisoning can be very vague and may include irritability, mood changes, weight loss, lack of energy, vomiting, constipation, or stomach pain. In many cases there are no symptoms. Children younger than 3 who have lead poisoning may develop anemia as well as learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and a variety of other developmental problems.

Lead is present in old paint, water pipes, and other substances. Lead-based paint may be a hazard in older homes, especially if it is flaking and peeling. Some toys and jewelry made in other countries have been found to contain high lead levels. The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to reduce a child's exposure to possible sources of lead.

If you suspect you or your child has been exposed to lead, a blood test may be appropriate. Lead poisoning may be diagnosed with a blood lead test that measures the amount of lead in the blood.

Treatment of lead poisoning begins with removal of sources of lead from the home and workplace. Providing balanced nutrition to a person with lead poisoning is also essential. Chelation therapy is often used to treat severe lead poisoning; an injected medication binds to the lead and allows it to be released in urine.

Last Updated: June 26, 2008

Author: Debby Golonka, MPH

Medical Review: Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics & R. Steven Tharratt, MD, MPVM, FACP, FCCP - Pulmonology, Critical Care, Medical Toxicology

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