What Are the Early Signs of Lead Poisoning? Symptoms

Medically Reviewed on 12/9/2021
What Are the Early Signs of Lead Poisoning
Signs of lead poisoning vary depending on age as well as the duration and amount of lead exposure. Symptoms may include abdominal pain and nausea

Lead poisoning can occur after exposure to high levels of lead in a short period of time, or after continuous exposure to low levels of lead over a long period of time.

Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning vary depending on your age as well as both the duration and amount of lead exposure, and may include:

In some cases, lead poisoning may not cause symptoms at all.

What are complications of lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning can cause more severe complications such as kidney failure and seizures.

Children are more vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning. High levels of exposure can affect the brain and intellectual capacity and can result in unconsciousness and coma in some cases.

Lead accumulation in pregnant women can result in problems such as miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature birth. Moreover, lead poisoning can damage an unborn child’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system.

What are sources of lead exposure?

Lead poisoning can occur through breathing, swallowing, or skin absorption. However, the body absorbs higher levels of lead when it is breathed in. Once lead gets into your body, it gets stored in your organs, bones, and teeth.

Lead can get into your body through multiple sources:

  • Lead-based paint: Lead-based paint is one of the leading sources of lead poisoning. Although it has been banned for use in new homes, it can still be found in older homes.
  • Water pipes: Old water pipes are often made of lead. Sometimes, brass or copper plumbing fixtures or pipes may also contain small amounts of lead.
  • Imported canned goods: Although banned in the United States, some countries still use lead to seal canned goods.

Other sources of lead include the following:

  • Soil
  • Toys
  • Household dust
  • Paint sets and art supplies
  • Storage batteries (lead-acid batteries found in nonelectric cars)
  • Pottery
  • Lead bullets
  • Cosmetics
  • Certain herbal remedies

People working in certain occupations may be at higher risk of lead exposure:

  • Auto repair
  • Mining
  • Pipe fitting
  • Battery manufacturing
  • Painting
  • Construction

How is lead poisoning diagnosed?

If you think you or your child have been exposed to high levels of lead, contact your doctor. They may order a blood test to measure lead levels in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) of blood. Any amount of lead detected in the blood is bad, but 5 mcg/dL is enough to necessitate regular testing.

According to the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), doctors and parents should check state or local health department recommendations on lead testing. Children who live in older homes may need to undergo regular testing. 

If there are no specific lead testing recommendations in your area, the AAP recommends that you have your child tested for lead levels when they are 1-2 years of age.

In some cases, your doctor may order additional tests:


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How is lead poisoning treated?

If doctors detect a low level of lead in your body, you will need to stay away from the source of lead exposure. For example, if you have lead paint in your home, you can get it sealed instead of removing it.

There is no safe or permissible amount of lead. However, lead levels in blood that are higher than 5 mcg/dL need regular testing, and those higher than 45 mcg/dL need treatment.

For more severe cases, treatment may involve the following:

  • Chelation therapy: Oral dose of a chemical called 2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid. Once it gets into your blood, it binds with the lead and the lead is expelled from your body through urine.
  • Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) chelation therapy: Injection of a chemical called EDTA. This is an option for children who cannot take regular chelation therapy medicine orally.

How to prevent lead poisoning

The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to stay away from all sources of lead as much as you can. Measures you can take include the following:

  • Wash your hands and your child’s hands thoroughly with soap and water after coming home from outdoors.
  • Regularly clean floors, windows, and furniture to wipe away any lead dust.
  • Clean your child’s toys regularly.
  • Remove shoes outside before entering your home to avoid bringing in lead-containing soil.
  • If you live in an older home, let cold water run for one minute before using it for drinking or cooking purposes.
  • Avoid eating and drinking in areas where lead-containing products are used.
  • If you work in a company that involves handling or processing lead, take off your clothes after coming home and wash them separately. This will prevent lead dust from gathering on other surfaces in your home.
  • If you work in a company that involves handling or processing lead, wear proper personal protective equipment such as goggles, gloves, boots, and protective clothing.
  • Ask your employer if they conduct routine blood lead level testing. If they do not, get it done at your doctor’s office.
  • If you can, try to work in areas with good ventilation.
  • If your workplace is exposed to lead and you plan to get pregnant or are breastfeeding, talk to your doctor.
Medically Reviewed on 12/9/2021
Image Source: iStock Images

Lead poisoning. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health

Lead: How You Can Keep Yourself and Your Family Safe from Lead. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/safe.html

Lead: Health Problems Caused by Lead. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/health.html