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Mercury Poisoning Symptoms | 8 Signs

Dr Gareth

Medically reviewed by GP Gareth James MBBS, DFFP, DRCOG, MRCGP on December 2, 2023. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Check My Body Health blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Long-term exposure to mercury can harm your nervous system, leading to:

  • Numbness or pain in parts of your body
  • Shaking or tremors you can’t control
  • Difficulty walking
  • Vision problems like blindness or double vision
  • Memory loss
  • In severe cases, seizures and even death are possible

Mercury poisoning, also known as mercury toxicity, is a fairly rare event that can occur when a person is exposed to high levels of mercury. The symptoms of mercury poisoning can vary depending on the form of mercury, the route of exposure, and the individual’s overall health, but some common symptoms include:

  • Numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, or around the mouth
  • Mood swings, irritability, and nervousness
  • Insomnia, fatigue, and weakness
  • Headaches, tremors, and difficulty with coordination and balance
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and constipation
  • Memory problems and difficulty concentrating
  • Kidney damage and increased risk of kidney disease
  • Vision and hearing loss

It’s important to seek medical attention if you suspect you have been exposed to high levels of mercury and are experiencing symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent more serious health problems.

Should I have traces of mercury in my body

Yes, it is normal for trace amounts of mercury to be present in the human body. Mercury is a naturally occurring element and can be found in the environment in various forms, such as in water, soil, and air. It can also enter the body through food, such as fish and shellfish, which can contain low levels of mercury.

However, exposure to high levels of mercury can cause mercury poisoning, also known as mercury toxicity, which can result in serious health problems.

It’s important to minimise exposure to mercury, especially if you are an infant or child, have kidney disease, pregnant or planning to become pregnant (as high levels of mercury can harm the developing foetus).

An individual can be exposed to high levels of mercury in situations such as:

Inhalation: Inhaling mercury vapours from broken old style mercury thermometers (now banned in the UK), or certain broken fluorescent and low-energy lamps, dental fillings, or industrial processes can cause mercury poisoning.

Consumption: Eating fish and shellfish that contain high levels of mercury can lead to mercury poisoning. Some larger types of fish, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, contain higher levels of mercury than others. It will also depend on where these fish have originated as the levels of mercury in the sea are different around the world.

Skin contact: Skin contact with mercury can occur from broken old style mercury thermometers (now banned in the UK), broken fluorescent and low-energy lamps.

Skin exposure may also occur with contact to elemental mercury in certain industrial processes.

Medical and dental products: Certain medical and dental products, such as some ointments and creams, can contain mercury and can result in mercury poisoning if absorbed through the skin.

If you suspect you have been exposed to high levels of mercury, it’s important to seek medical attention. 

They may recommend a blood or urine test to measure the levels of mercury in your body. If the levels are found to be high, they can recommend appropriate treatment to reduce your exposure and minimise any potential health effects. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent more serious health problems.

Diagnosing mercury poisoning

Toxicity symptoms can take weeks or months to appear. A chemical spill with elemental mercury or inorganic mercury might though give you symptoms more rapidly. The following tests may be used to diagnose mercury poisoning:

Blood test: A blood test can measure the level of mercury in the blood. This test is usually done to diagnose acute mercury poisoning.

Urine test: A urine test can measure the amount of mercury in the urine and can be used to diagnose both acute and chronic mercury poisoning.

Hair test: A hair test can measure the amount of mercury that has accumulated in the hair over time and can be used to diagnose chronic mercury poisoning.

Skin test: A skin test can measure the level of mercury in the skin and can be used to diagnose mercury poisoning from skin contact.

Your healthcare provider may also perform a physical examination and ask about your symptoms and any known exposure to mercury. They may also consider other possible causes of your symptoms and perform additional tests to rule out other conditions.

How do you Treat mercury poisoning?

Treatment for mercury poisoning depends on the type, amount, and duration of exposure, as well as the individual’s age, health status, and symptoms. Here are some common treatments:

Chelation therapy: This involves the administration of chelating agents that bind to mercury and help remove it from the body.

Supportive care: This may include measures to manage symptoms, such as respiratory support, hydration, and pain management.

Elimination of source: If possible, the source of the mercury exposure should be removed to prevent further harm.

Antidotes: There are specific antidotes available for certain forms of mercury poisoning, such as N-Acetylcysteine for mercury vapour exposure.

Populations at Higher Risk

Mercury doesn’t affect everyone equally. Certain groups are more susceptible to its harmful effects due to biological factors or lifestyle. Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable, as their developing nervous systems are easily damaged by mercury. Pregnant and breastfeeding women must also be vigilant, as mercury can cross the placenta and enter breast milk, potentially harming the developing fetus or infant. Individuals with existing kidney problems are also at heightened risk, as their bodies may struggle to eliminate mercury effectively.

Key Points:

    • Infants and children are most vulnerable due to developing nervous systems.
    • Pregnant and breastfeeding women need to be cautious for their babies’ sake.
    • People with kidney problems may experience heightened mercury toxicity.

First Aid and Emergency Response:

Swift action is crucial if you suspect mercury exposure. If a mercury thermometer breaks, don’t panic! Put on gloves, carefully collect the beads, and seal them in a container. Open windows for ventilation. If mercury touches your skin, wash it off immediately with soap and water. Most importantly, seek medical attention promptly if you experience any symptoms of mercury poisoning or believe you’ve been exposed to a significant amount. Early intervention can make a huge difference in preventing serious complications.

  • Key Points:
    • Safely collect and contain spilled mercury.
    • Wash skin thoroughly after contact.
    • Seek immediate medical attention if you have symptoms or suspect significant exposure.
  •  

The Role of Nutrition:

While a balanced diet can’t reverse mercury poisoning, some research suggests certain nutrients might offer a degree of protection or aid in its elimination. Selenium, a trace mineral found in foods like Brazil nuts, seafood, and whole grains, may bind to mercury and reduce its toxic effects. However, more research is needed to fully understand this relationship. It’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional before making any dietary changes, especially if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have underlying health conditions.

Key Points:

    • Selenium may help protect against or aid in the elimination of mercury.
    • A balanced diet rich in selenium could be beneficial.
    • Always consult a healthcare professional before making any dietary changes.

References

  1. Rice KM, Walker EM Jr, Wu M, Gillette C, Blough ER. Environmental mercury and its toxic effects. J Prev Med Public Health. 2014;47(2):74-83.
  2. Basic Information about Mercury. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed January 21, 2021. (https://www.epa.gov/mercury/basic-information-about-mercury)
  3. Mercury in Dental Amalgam. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed January 21, 2021. (https://www.epa.gov/mercury/mercury-dental-amalgam)
  4. Mercury. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed January 21, 2021. (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/mercury/default.html)
  5. Heavy metal poisoning. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. Accessed January 21, 2021. (https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6577/heavy-metal-poisoning/)
  6. Yuan Y. Methylmercury: a potential environmental risk factor contributing to epileptogenesis. Neurotoxicology. 2012;33(1):119-126.
  7. Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed January 21, 2021. (https://www.epa.gov/mercury/health-effects-exposures-mercury)
  8. Mercury in Your Environment: Steps You Can Take. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed January 21, 2021. (https://www.epa.gov/mercury/mercury-your-environment-steps-you-can-take)