There are many different symptoms of arsenic poisoning ranging from the relatively benign to the potentially life-threatening. Headaches and persistent tingling in the hands and feet are some of the earliest signs of exposure, and prolonged contact often leads to striped, discolored, and brittle fingernails. Stomach cramps, bowel trouble, and difficulty breathing are also common, and in extreme cases people can experience cardiac arrest, blood disorders, and liver failure. The intensity and severity of symptoms is usually driven by how much of the poison a person has ingested as well as its potency.
Persistent headaches are some of the most common symptoms. Usually these start out as relatively light and are typically centered behind one or both eyes. Painkillers will often dull discomfort for a time, but in most cases the ache returns just as soon as the medication has worn off. This is a particularly common complaint of people who are being slowly exposed to small amounts of arsenic over time, whether through tainted water, accidental ingestion, or intentional poisoning.
Numbness and Tingling
Another common complaint in arsenic poisoning cases is a subtle tingling or numbness, usually in the hands and feet. The sensation tends to come and go, but often grows more intense and disconcerting over time. People who suffer from long-term poisoning often say that their extremities constantly feel as though they are “asleep.” More general tenderness and sensitivity, particularly in the arms and legs, is also common.
Unusually dry, cracked, and discolored finger and toenails are a classic sign of arsenic ingestion. People with this symptom often complain of nails that seem to suddenly develop pronounced white or brown stripes that darken over time and become very brittle and prone to peeling. These effects can be long lasting, even after exposure has ended.
A number of problems related to the bowels and gastrointestinal tract are common, too. Stomach cramping, extreme constipation, and bloating happen in many patients, while others may experience vomiting, diarrhea, and general feelings of nausea. Once arsenic is in the blood, it tends to inflame many of the body’s most sensitive tissues; the intestines are often some of the most impacted. These sorts of symptoms typically go away once the poison has left the body.
The throat, lungs, and bronchial tissues are also relatively sensitive and can be damaged by the compound, which can lead to a range of breathing problems. Wheezing and shortness of breath are common, but a hoarse, raspy voice and difficulty swallowing can also be present. Sometimes the spit turns yellowish, too, and saliva may dry up. People with this symptom often have a tinny, metallic taste in their mouth, and frequently complain of garlicky breath. Extreme thirst sometimes also accompanies these symptoms.
In Extreme Cases
Most symptoms of arsenic poisoning are unpleasant and can lead to deteriorated health over time, but they can sometimes also be immediately threatening. People who ingest high doses of the substance have been known to go into shock, which can lead to cardiac arrest — essentially a heart attack — or stroke. Organ failure is another possible consequence, particularly where the liver and kidneys are concerned.
What to Look Out For
Most symptoms of arsenic poisoning are also symptoms of a number of other conditions and diseases, which can make getting the right diagnosis somewhat challenging. Doctors and medical professionals usually advise people who suspect they’ve been poisoned to chart their symptoms over time, making note of how long symptoms last, when they began and ended, and their intensity. Anything that seems out of the ordinary and lasts for more than a day or two is usually something that experts say should be evaluated.
Common Safety Precautions
Poisoning is most often due to contaminated food or water. Arsenic is a natural compound that occurs in the soil, sometimes in dangerously high concentrations. Many cities and municipalities filter and test their water, but not all do; people who drink from private, particularly old, wells may also be at risk. Drinking only filtered, tested water is a good way to rule out this possibility. In rarer cases, people are intentionally poisoned, usually by a caretaker or someone else with direct access to food and water supply. Anyone who suspects intentional tampering should seek help from local authorities. Arsenic poisoning isn’t always fatal, but it can have life-altering consequences if left untreated for long periods of time.
Arsenic Poisoning Symptoms Nails Testing
Testing for arsenic poisoning often looks at fingernails or hair. These tests can help doctors see how significant exposure is. Hair samples and nails can show arsenic poisoning over a 12 month period, which can show if levels have increased, dropped or remained consistent.
Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning in Water
Detecting arsenic poisoning in water isn’t easy unless you’re looking for it. Arsenic is odorless and tasteless, so you won’t be able to tell by the smell or taste of your water.
Fortunately, commonly available testing can show the presence and level of arsenic in well water. If you live in an area known to have high levels of arsenic in the soil, contact your local health department or a certified lab to have testing performed on the water. The process doesn’t take long.
The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. has established the maximum contaminant level for arsenic at 0.010 mg/L, or 0.010 parts per million (ppm). This is the same as 10 micrograms per liter. Anything higher is considered toxic. If possible, it’s best to only drink from sources that are near 0 mg/L.
Arsenic Poisoning Neurological Symptoms
Arsenic can affect the brain and the nervous system. The type of neurological symptoms caused by arsenic exposure depends on whether the poisoning is acute (severe) or chronic (long-term).
Sudden exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause confusion, sleepiness and severe headaches, potentially leading to convulsions as symptoms get worse. The person may also complain that their mouth has a metallic taste. Advanced arsenic poisoning can trigger seizures, coma and even death.
In the case of chronic arsenic poisoning, symptoms appear more gradually. The person may notice hearing issues, numbness in the extremities, memory problems, headaches and trouble concentrating. Young children can experience learning difficulties and other problems with cognitive development.
Ways That Arsenic Exposure Can Happen
Arsenic can appear naturally in the soil and also as a result of man-made processes, such as runoff from factories. There are many possible sources of arsenic poisoning.
Contaminated Groundwater or Well Water
By far the leading cause of arsenic poisoning comes from drinking contaminated water. This rarely happens in cities as public water is required to meet EPA regulations for removing arsenic. Some parts of the U.S. have high levels of arsenic in the soil, though, which can contaminate private wells or water distribution systems in smaller towns and county areas.
Some factory processes can release arsenic dust into the air. Arsenic is used in the manufacturing industry to make glass, paper, fabrics, leather products, dyes, preservative coatings and adhesives for metal. Factory workers can be exposed to arsenic if they work with these processes and don’t wear proper air filtration equipment. Sometimes, people who live close to a factor can be exposed.
People who live near waste sites and landfills may be unwittingly exposed to the toxin. Burning items treated with arsenic — like some wood products and carpeting — can expose residents to toxic smoke.
Tobacco products often contain dangerous levels of arsenic that can be inhaled in smoke. Using cigarettes or exposure to secondhand smoke can cause arsenic poisoning. Tobacco absorbs inorganic arsenic from the soil.