Copper poisoning

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Definition

This article discusses poisoning from copper.

This article is for information only. Do NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.

Poisonous Ingredient

Copper can be poisonous if it is swallowed or inhaled.

Where Found

Copper is found in these products:

  • Certain coins - all pennies in the United States made before 1982 contained copper
  • Certain insecticides and fungicides
  • Copper wire
  • Some aquarium products
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements (copper is an essential micronutrient, but too much can be deadly)

Other products my also contain copper.

Symptoms

Swallowing large amounts of copper may cause:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Yellow skin (jaundice)

Touching large amounts of copper can cause the hair to turn a different color (green). Breathing in copper dust and fumes may cause an acute syndrome of metal fume fever (MFF). People with this syndrome have:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • General weakness
  • Headache
  • Metallic taste in the mouth

Long-term exposure may cause lung inflammation and permanent scarring. This can lead to decreased lung function.

Symptoms of long-term exposure include:

Home Care

Seek medical help right away. Do NOT make a person throw up unless poison control or a health care provider tells you to.

Before Calling Emergency

Have this information ready:

  • The person's age, weight, and condition
  • The name of the product (and ingredients and strength, if known)
  • The time it was swallowed or inhaled
  • The amount swallowed or inhaled

Poison Control

Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated. The person may receive:

  • Activated charcoal by mouth or tube through the nose into the stomach
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Breathing support, including oxygen, tube through the mouth into the throat, and breathing machine
  • Chest x-ray
  • Dialysis (kidney machine)
  • EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
  • Fluids through a vein (by IV)
  • Medicine to treat symptoms
  • Medicine to reverse the effect of the poison

Outlook (Prognosis)

Sudden (acute) copper poisoning is rare. However, serious health problems from long-term exposure to copper can occur. Severe poisoning can cause liver failure and death.

In poisonings from a long-term buildup of copper in the body, the outcome depends on how much damage there is to the body's organs.

References

Hall AH, Shannon MW. Other heavy metals. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 75.

Holland MG. Pulmonary toxicology. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 9.

Jones AL, Dargan PI. Hepatic toxicology. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 11.

Lewis JH. Liver disease caused by anesthetics, chemicals, toxins, and herbal preparations. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 89.

Price EA, Schrier SS. Extrinsic nonimmune hemolytic anemias. In: Hoffman R, Benz EJ Jr, Silberstein LE, Heslop HE, Weitz JI, eds. Hematology: Basic Principles and Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 45.

Velez LI, O'Connell EJ. Heavy metals. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 157.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 10/9/2015
  • Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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