Lead Poisoning Symptoms

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning in children?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning affects 250,000 children under 5 years of age in the United States. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the rates of exposure of children to lead is decreasing.

Lead gradually accumulates in the body due to long-term exposure in the environment. It is especially dangerous to newborns, infants, and small children because the effects on the developing brain may be permanent and irreversible. Initial symptoms in infants and children include:

These initial symptoms may be initially misdiagnosed since most health care professionals don't think of lead poisoning as a possibility. But when weight loss, sluggishness, and slow growth appear as longer lasting symptoms, then the potential for many unusual diagnoses exists and lead is a prime candidate.

What is the risk of lead poisoning?

The risk of lead exposure all depends upon where you live. Lead paint was often used in houses built before the early 1970s, when lead paint was made illegal. Some older water pipes were connected with lead solder that could leach into the drinking water. Antique toys and those made outside the United States also may contain lead.

Living in an older house is a prime risk factor, but it isn't just the house that can make a difference. It can be the neighborhood as well. Factories that use lead to make batteries and other industrial components can use lead in the manufacturing process and can contaminate the air and ground. Work exposure may be a concern. Lead solder is used in making stained glass windows and older paint on antique furniture can release lead when refurbishing occurs. 

While this is better regulated in Western countries, recent events in China should be a reminder why zoning and environmental laws exist. In 2009, a smelting plant in Hunan located less than a mile from a school was found to be the source of over 2,000 children sickened with lead poisoning. In May 2011, a battery plant was found to be the source of lead poisoning in Hangzhou.

How are children screened for lead poisoning?

Screening for lead poisoning begins with routine visits to a health care professional. The American Academy of Pediatrics developed a three question test to find kids at risk for lead poisoning:

  • Does your child live in or regularly visit a house or child care facility built before 1950?
  • Does your child live in or regularly visit a house or child care facility built before 1978 that is being or has recently been renovated or remodeled (within the last 6 months)?
  • Does your child have a sibling or playmate who has or did have lead poisoning?

If the answer is yes to any of the three, then a blood test should be done to screen for lead poisoning.

The CDC also has lead screening policies. In 2000, they recommended that all children younger than 5 years of age receiving Medicaid assistance be screened for lead poisoning. That has been adjusted in the last year to ask state and local governments and health agencies to assess high risk communities and decide which individuals are best to screen for possible lead poisoning. The common thread is that many people living in older low income housing units and their children have increased risk for lead exposure.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning in adults?

Adults are not immune from lead poisoning. Symptoms in adults are similar to those in children and include:

How do you prevent or treat lead poisoning?

There is treatment for lead poisoning that binds the lead and removes it from the body, but the best therapy begins with prevention. Public education is important but so is government involvement. Agencies inspect imported toys and jewelry for lead content. Factories are monitored for emissions. Buildings are inspected for lead paint and water purity and permits are needed for remodeling older homes.

A quarter million kids have been found to have toxic levels of lead in their bodies. The goal is to identify those who are unaware that they have been poisoned. It's up to parents, health care professionals, caregivers, and public health officials to find these children, treat them, and minimize future risk.

Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine


CDC.gov. Lead.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Lead Exposure in Children: Prevention, Detection, and Management.

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