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Disease Profile

Heavy metal poisoning

Prevalence estimates on Rare Medical Network websites are calculated based on data available from numerous sources, including US and European government statistics, the NIH, Orphanet, and published epidemiologic studies. Rare disease population data is recognized to be highly variable, and based on a wide variety of source data and methodologies, so the prevalence data on this site should be assumed to be estimated and cannot be considered to be absolutely correct.


US Estimated

Europe Estimated

Age of onset





Autosomal dominant A pathogenic variant in only one gene copy in each cell is sufficient to cause an autosomal dominant disease.


Autosomal recessive Pathogenic variants in both copies of each gene of the chromosome are needed to cause an autosomal recessive disease and observe the mutant phenotype.


dominant X-linked dominant inheritance, sometimes referred to as X-linked dominance, is a mode of genetic inheritance by which a dominant gene is carried on the X chromosome.


recessive Pathogenic variants in both copies of a gene on the X chromosome cause an X-linked recessive disorder.


Mitochondrial or multigenic Mitochondrial genetic disorders can be caused by changes (mutations) in either the mitochondrial DNA or nuclear DNA that lead to dysfunction of the mitochondria and inadequate production of energy.


Multigenic or multifactor Inheritance involving many factors, of which at least one is genetic but none is of overwhelming importance, as in the causation of a disease by multiple genetic and environmental factors.


Not applicable


Other names (AKA)

Chronic heavy metal poisoning; Heavy Metal Toxicity


Heavy metal poisoning refers to when excessive exposure to a heavy metal affects the normal function of the body.[1] Examples of heavy metals that can cause toxicity include lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium.[1] Exposure may occur through the diet, from medications, from the environment, or in the course of work or play.[2] Heavy metals can enter the body through the skin, or by inhalation or ingestion.[1] Toxicity can result from sudden, severe exposure, or from chronic exposure over time. Symptoms can vary depending on the metal involved, the amount absorbed, and the age of the person exposed.[2] For example, young children are more susceptible to the effects of lead exposure because they absorb more compared with adults and their brains are still developing.[2] Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain are common symptoms of acute metal ingestion. Chronic exposure may cause various symptoms resulting from damage to body organs, and may increase the risk of cancer.[2] Treatment depends on the circumstances of the exposure.


Signs and symptoms of heavy metal poisoning vary depending on the type and amount of metal involved.[1] Fetuses and young children are at the highest risk for severe and long term health consequences from heavy metal exposure.[1] Early symptoms may be missed because they are often nonspecific. Excessive exposure and damage to several organs can occur even if a person has no symptoms. Some signs and symptoms of metal poisoning may include:[1][2]

  • Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (the hallmark symptoms with most cases of acute metal ingestion)
  • Dehydration
  • Heart abnormalities such as cardiomyopathy or abnormal heart beat (dysrhythmia)
  • Nervous system symptoms (e.g. numbness, tingling of hands and feet, and weakness)
  • Anemia (a classic symptom of chronic metal exposure)
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Lung irritation, or fluid accumulation (edema)
  • Brain dysfunction such as memory loss
  • Horizontal lines on the nails
  • Changes in behavior
  • Malformed bones in children, or weakened bones
  • Miscarriage or premature labor in pregnant women


Diagnosing heavy metal poisoning can be difficult, as it relies on having a known exposure and positive results on approved tests.[3] Heavy metal poisoning is often first suspected based on a patient's history and/or symptoms consistent with excessive exposure.

The following tests may help make the diagnosis of heavy metal toxicity, or help determine how severe the exposure is:[2]

Testing is available in panels (where multiple exposures are tested) or by individual metal. The testing performed depends on the person's symptoms and suspected exposure. Metals more commonly tested for include lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium. Metals less commonly tested for include aluminum, beryllium, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, nickel, platinum, selenium, silicon, silver, and thallium.[1]

For further information on testing for heavy metal poisoning, visit Lab Tests Online, a website developed by the American Association for Clinical Chemistry.

To view a list of conditions with signs symptoms that overlap with those of heavy metal poisoning, visit Medscape's website.

Learn more

These resources provide more information about this condition or associated symptoms. The in-depth resources contain medical and scientific language that may be hard to understand. You may want to review these resources with a medical professional.

Where to Start

  • The United States Department of Labor provides information on toxic metals. Click on the link above to view the information page.
  • Lab Tests Online, a Web site developed by the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, provides detailed in formation on heavy metal poisoning. Click on Lab Tests Online to view the information pages.
  • The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry offers a Toxic Substances Portal where you can learn more about risk levels and health effects of heavy metals. Click on the link above to view the portal.
  • MedlinePlus was designed by the National Library of Medicine to help you research your health questions, and it provides more information about this topic.
  • The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) has a report for patients and families about this condition. NORD is a patient advocacy organization for individuals with rare diseases and the organizations that serve them.

In-Depth Information

  • Medscape Reference provides information on this topic. You may need to register to view the medical textbook, but registration is free.
  • The Merck Manual for health care professionals provides information on Heavy metal poisoning.
  • The Monarch Initiative brings together data about this condition from humans and other species to help physicians and biomedical researchers. Monarch’s tools are designed to make it easier to compare the signs and symptoms (phenotypes) of different diseases and discover common features. This initiative is a collaboration between several academic institutions across the world and is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Visit the website to explore the biology of this condition.
  • PubMed is a searchable database of medical literature and lists journal articles that discuss Heavy metal poisoning. Click on the link to view a sample search on this topic.


  1. Lab Tests Online. Heavy Metals. American Association for Clinical Chemistry. April 8, 2016; https://labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/heavy-metals/tab/test.
  2. Adal A. Heavy Metal Toxicity. Medscape Reference. June 30, 2016; https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/814960-overview.
  3. Heavy metals and your health: Frequently asked questions about testing, treatment and prevention. Oregon Health Authority. May 2016; https://www.oregon.gov/oha/ph/HealthyEnvironments/HealthyNeighborhoods/LeadPoisoning/MedicalProvidersLaboratories/Documents/HeavyMetals.pdf.

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