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First Aid for Lead Poisoning

Last updated March 5, 2018

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

Lead is a highly-toxic metal that is easily absorbed by the body, resulting in its accumulation.

What is Lead Poisoning?

  • Lead (Pb) is a relatively soft, but heavy grey metal that is obtained naturally from the earth. It is a highly-toxic metal that is easily absorbed by the body, resulting in its accumulation
  • Lead is used in plumbing, construction materials, to provide radiation shielding, in lead-acid batteries, for soldering electronic components, and for various other applications
  • Lead was a common component of paints used for both interior and exterior surfaces. However, due to toxicity of lead and the environmental hazard it posed, lead-based paints have been phased out and replaced
  • Lead Poisoning is the accidental or intentional intake of lead containing compounds
  • The condition is diagnosed based upon the clinical history, combination of signs and symptoms, and additional tests (that may include, in some cases, radiological studies and laboratory tests)

Lead Poisoning may be variously referred to as the following:

  • Lead Toxicity
  • Pb Poisoning

What are the Causes of Lead Poisoning?

  • Lead Poisoning is caused by the ingestion or inhalation of lead compounds. The exposure may also occur following skin contact
  • This intake could be accidental, or in some cases intentional, to bring self-harm
  • Lead Toxicity may occur from consuming water that runs through lead pipes (in old structures), pewter vessels, by taking certain native medicine, via occupational exposure, or exposure through lead-based paints including glass and pottery decoration works, due to its use in petrol/gasoline, lead batteries, and soil contamination

Note: The compound can interact with other prescribed or non-prescribed medications in the body. Such interactions may enhance the therapeutic effects of other medications being taken, resulting in undesired side effects.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Lead Poisoning?

The signs and symptoms of Lead Poisoning can vary from one individual to another. It may be mild in some and severe in others. Several body systems may be affected, since lead can stay in the body without being excreted. Children including infants, who are exposed to lead, have a high risk for severe poisoning.

The signs and symptoms of Lead Poisoning may include:

  • Headaches, fatigue or weakness
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain and cramping of stomach
  • Lack of appetite
  • Neurological symptoms that include irritability, aggressive behavior, and low response or reflex level
  • Low level of red blood cells leading to anemia and associated symptoms
  • In case of severe exposure, symptoms such as muscle weakness, vomiting, lack of orientation, staggering, and convulsions may be noted. The exposed individual may also go into a state of coma
  • Women, who have been exposed to lead, may find it difficult to get pregnant

Chronic exposure to lead, especially in an industrial setting, can result in severe symptoms and multi-organ complications.

How is First Aid administered for Lead Poisoning?

First Aid tips for Lead Poisoning:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency help number immediately for emergency assistance, in case life-threatening symptoms are noticed
  • Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 (or your local poison control center) for further instructions
  • Provide them with information such as the compound taken, quantity and time of ingestion, age, weight and general health status of affected individual
  • Carefully remove the individual from the exposure area; move them to region of fresh air immediately
  • Confirm that the airways are protected; also, ensure breathing and the presence of pulse
  • If exposure of the skin has occurred, then wash thoroughly with copious amounts of water
  • Take individual to emergency room (ER) for further treatment
  • Always try to take the compound bottle/container to the ER, if possible

In case of any emergencies, the emergency medical health professional may take the following steps towards treating the condition:

  • Monitor vital signs and undertake various blood tests, to determine the amount of lead present in the body
  • Medically manage symptoms and provide breathing support, if necessary
  • Gastric lavage for elimination of the substance from the stomach (irrigation using special solutions)
  • Flushing out the intestines using polyethylene glycol solution
  • Wash eyes and skin repeatedly and thoroughly (irrigation), to eliminate any hazardous compound
  • Administer fluids by an intravenous drip line, if necessary

Who should administer First Aid for Lead Poisoning?

First aid for Lead Poisoning is administered by healthcare professionals.

  • The individual who is affected, or someone near, should call 911 for emergency assistance (or the local emergency number)
  • They should also call the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 (or the local poison control center) and follow instructions

What is the Prognosis of Lead Poisoning?

  • The prognosis of Lead Poisoning is dependent on the amount of substance consumed, time between consumption and treatment, severity of the symptoms, as well as general health status of the patient. It is also dependent on whether the toxic effects of lead are from an acute or chronic exposure
  • If the individual can recover from the symptoms, with appropriate medication and early support, the outcome can be good
  • Both acute and chronic exposure to the substance can lead to several complications and irreversible damage, depending on the duration and degree of exposure
  • Young children and babies in the womb are highly susceptible to Lead Toxicity; in such cases, both physical, mental/cognitive growth and development may be severely affected

In general, toxicities are common situations in the emergency departments. A majority of the cases are often not fatal, when appropriate treatment is given.

How can Lead Poisoning be Prevented?

Lead Poisoning can be prevented by:

  • Identifying all sources of lead and taking recommended/suitable measures to contain or prevent any exposure from them
  • Taking measures to prevent Lead Poisoning if you stay in old houses that contain lead water pipes, lead-based paints and paintings, etc.
  • Using suitable water filters, if drinking or cooking water contains lead; else, finding clean alternative water sources
  • Properly disposing old decorative artwork with lead, or old toys that may be made of lead
  • Avoiding storing water or wine in old lead vessels and pitchers
  • Avoiding tinned food products that are stored in lead compound containers
  • Washing hands before eating food
  • Keeping any poisonous/hazardous chemicals and other materials out of children’s reach
  • Keep all poisons correctly labeled and in suitable storage locations
  • Using appropriate protective wear when working with such chemicals (such as face masks and hand gloves)
  • Those who work in industries using lead should be aware of and comply with safe industrial practices
  • Working in well-ventilated spaces, when risk of exposure to lead dust is present
  • Being aware of basic first aid steps in case of an emergency (such as inadvertent poisoning)

What are certain Crucial Steps to be followed?

  • Call 911 (or your local emergency number) for emergency assistance, if symptoms are life-threatening
  • Call Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 (or the local poison control center) and follow the recommend steps
  • It would be helpful if the following information is readily available:
    • Type, amount and time of consumption of the substance
    • Age and weight of the individual
    • And, the overall health status of the individual

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Aug. 27, 2017
Last updated: March 5, 2018