What is lead poisoning?

Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning in children: Overview

Lead poisoning occurs when you breathe or swallow too much lead. Lead is a metal that is sometimes found in food, dust, paint, and water. Too much lead in the body is especially bad for a young child. A child may swallow lead by eating chips of old paint or chewing on objects painted with lead-based paint.

Lead poisoning can cause a stomachache, muscle weakness, and brain damage. It can slow a child's growth. And it can cause learning disabilities and behavior and hearing problems. Lead also can cause these problems in an unborn baby (fetus).

Lead is found in the environment. It can get into homes and workplaces through certain products. Lead has been removed from many products, such as gasoline and new paints. But it can still be found in older paints and batteries. Many homes built before 1978 may have lead-based paint.

Removing lead from the home is the most important thing you can do to reduce further health damage from lead.

Lead poisoning

Lead poisoning is the name given to the harm caused by too much 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 young children. 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. Young children who have lead poisoning may have anemia as well as learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and a variety of other developmental problems.

Lead may be present in old paint, metal water pipes, and other substances. Lead-based paint may be a hazard in older homes, especially if it is flaking and peeling. A pregnant person who is exposed to lead can pass it to their baby. Lead can also be passed to a baby through breast milk. The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to reduce 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 removing sources of lead from the home and workplace. Providing balanced nutrition to a person who has lead poisoning is also essential. Chelation therapy is often used to treat severe lead poisoning. A medicine binds to the lead and allows it to be released in urine.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

You may not notice any symptoms at first. The effects of lead poisoning are easy to miss and may seem related to other conditions. The higher the amount of lead in the body, the more severe the symptoms are.

In children, symptoms can include:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system. Children may be smaller than other kids the same age.
  • Behavior problems, such as acting angry, moody, or hyperactive.
  • Learning problems.
  • Lack of energy, and not feeling hungry.
  • Vomiting, constipation, or stomach pain.

In adults, lead poisoning can cause:

  • Changes in behavior, mood, personality, and sleep patterns.
  • Memory loss and trouble thinking clearly.
  • Weakness and muscle problems.
  • Headaches.
  • Vomiting, constipation, or stomach pain.

Severe cases can cause seizures, paralysis, and coma.

How is lead poisoning treated?

Treatment for lead poisoning includes removing the source of lead, getting good nutrition, and, in some cases, having chelation therapy.

Removing the source of lead.

Old paint chips and dirt are the most common sources of lead in the home. Lead-based paint, and the dirt and dust that come along with it, should be removed by professionals. In the workplace, removal usually means removing lead dust that's in the air and making sure that people don't bring contaminated dust or dirt on their clothing into their homes or other places.

Good nutrition.

Eating foods that have enough iron and other vitamins and minerals may be enough to reduce lead levels in the body. A person who eats a balanced, nutritious diet may absorb less lead than someone with a poor diet.

Chelation therapy.

If removing the lead source and getting good nutrition don't work, or if lead levels are very high, you may need to take chelating medicines. These medicines bind to lead in the body and help remove it.

If blood lead levels don't come down with treatment, home and work areas may need to be rechecked. Call your local health department to see what inspection services are offered in your area.

The best way to avoid lead poisoning is to prevent it. Treatment cannot reverse any damage that has already occurred. But there are many ways to reduce your exposure—and your child's—before it causes symptoms.

How is lead poisoning diagnosed?

The doctor will ask questions and do a physical exam to look for signs of lead poisoning. If your doctor suspects lead poisoning, your doctor will do a blood test to find out the amount of lead in the blood.

Diagnosing lead poisoning is difficult, because the symptoms can be caused by many diseases. Most children with lead poisoning don't have symptoms until their blood lead levels are very high.

There are screening programs to check lead levels in children who are likely to be exposed to lead. Whether your child needs to be tested depends in part on where you live, how old your housing is, and other risk factors. Talk to your child's doctor about whether your child is at risk and should be screened.

Adults usually aren't screened for lead poisoning unless they have a job that involves working with lead. For these workers, companies usually are required to provide testing.

If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant and have a family member who works with lead, you may want to ask your doctor about your risk for lead poisoning. But in general, experts don't recommend routine testing for lead in pregnant people who don't have symptoms.

How can you care for your child who has lead poisoning?

  • If your child takes medicine to remove lead from their body, have your child take the medicine exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with a medicine.
  • If your home has lead pipes:
    • Do not cook with, drink, or make baby formula with water from the hot-water tap. Hot water pulls more lead out of pipes than cold water does. (It is okay to bathe or shower in hot water. That's because lead usually does not get into the body through the skin.)
    • Let cold water run for a few minutes before you drink it or cook with it.
    • Buy and use a water filter certified to remove lead.
  • Feed your child healthy foods with plenty of iron and calcium. A healthy diet makes it harder for lead to get into the body. Yogurt, cheese, and some green vegetables, such as broccoli and kale, have calcium. Iron is found in meats, leafy green vegetables, raisins, peas, beans, lentils, and eggs. Make sure your child gets phosphorus, zinc, and vitamin C in their diet.

To prevent lead poisoning

  • Have your home checked for lead. Call the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD (1-800-424-5323) to learn more and to get a list of resources in your area. Have all home remodeling or refinishing projects done by people who have experience in lead removal or control. Keep your family away from the home during the project.
  • Wash your child's hands, bottles, toys, and pacifiers often.
  • Do not let your child eat dirt or food that falls on the floor.
  • Clean windowsills, door frames, and floors without carpet 2 times a week. Use warm, soapy water on a cloth or mop. Clean rugs with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter, if possible. Steam-clean carpets.
  • Take off your shoes or wipe dirt off them before you go into your home.
  • Do not scrape, sand, or burn painted wood unless you are sure that it does not contain lead.
  • If you know paint has lead in it, do not remove it yourself.
  • If you have a hobby that uses lead (such as making stained glass), move your work space away from your home. Wash and change your clothes before you get in your car or go home.

Storing and preparing food to lower the chance of lead poisoning

  • If you reuse plastic bags to store food, make sure the printing is on the outside.
  • Never store food in an opened metal can, especially if the can was not made in the United States. If there is lead in the metal or the solder, it can be released into the food after air gets into the can.
  • Do not prepare, serve, or store food or drinks in ceramic pottery or crystal glasses unless you are sure they are lead-free.

What increases your risk for lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning can occur at any age, but children are most likely to be affected by high lead levels. Higher lead levels can be found in:

  • Buildings built before 1978. These buildings may have lead-based paint. The risk is even higher in buildings built before 1950, when lead-based paint was more commonly used.
  • Buildings in other countries that do not regulate lead levels.

Children are at higher risk because:

  • They often put their hands and objects in their mouths.
  • They sometimes swallow nonfood items.
  • Their bodies absorb lead at a higher rate.
  • Their brains are developing quickly.

Other things that increase risk include:

  • Water that flows through pipes that were soldered with lead.
  • Lead from metal smelters, pottery, or stained glass.
  • Toys, candy, or ceramic cookware from countries that do not regulate lead levels.
  • Industrial pollution.

What causes lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is usually caused by months or years of exposure to small amounts of lead at home, work, or day care. It can also happen very quickly with exposure to a large amount of lead. Many things can contain or be contaminated with lead: paint, air, water, soil, food, and manufactured goods.

The most common source of lead exposure for children is lead-based paint and the dust and soil that are contaminated by it. This can be a problem in older homes and buildings.

Adults are most often exposed to lead at work or while doing hobbies that involve lead.

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when you absorb too much lead by breathing or swallowing a substance with lead in it, such as paint, dust, water, or food. Lead can damage almost every organ system.

In children, too much lead in the body can cause lasting problems with growth and development. These can affect behavior, hearing, and learning and can slow the child's growth.

In adults, lead poisoning can damage the brain and nervous system, the stomach, and the kidneys. It can also cause high blood pressure and other health problems.

Although it isn't normal to have lead in your body, a small amount is present in most people. Environmental laws have reduced lead exposure in the United States, but it is still a health risk, especially for young children.

Lead poisoning in children: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child has seizures.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has severe belly pain or frequent forceful vomiting (projectile vomiting).
  • You live in an older home with peeling or chipping paint and your child or someone in the house has signs of lead poisoning. These signs include:
    • Being very tired or drowsy.
    • Weakness in the hands and feet.
    • Changes in personality.
    • Headaches.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You want help to find out if your home has lead in it.
  • You want to have your child tested for lead.
  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.

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