Arsenic Poisoning

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

How is arsenic poisoning diagnosed?

The history of the patient is very important as exposures are most often from industrial accidents so other people (coworkers, rescue personnel) may be exposed and not realize they may have some risk also. People exposed to toxic levels of arsenic may have breath and urine that smells like garlic as a clue to their diagnosis. Most doctors that suspect arsenic (or other metal or metalloid poisonings) will request lab studies such as blood cell counts and serum electrolytes such as calcium and magnesium; if there is evidence of hemolysis (blood cell destruction), a type and screening for a potential blood transfusion is done.

 There are rapid urine "spot" tests available to diagnose elevated levels of arsenic, but they usually don't distinguish between organic and inorganic arsenic. The patient's blood and urine will be sent for analysis for arsenic; a result of > 50 micrograms/L is considered elevated, but acute toxic exposures may result in levels 5 to 100 times or more than those which are considered "elevated." A speciation test (determines levels of inorganic versus organic arsenic) is required in all cases in which total urine arsenic is elevated since inorganic arsenic is so toxic. Electrocardiograms (ECG, EKG) and nerve conduction tests are often done in any type of suspected arsenic exposure. Tests for other toxins or toxic overdoses (for example, Tylenol ingestion) may also be done.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/4/2015

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