Which clinical history findings are characteristic of lead toxicity in adults?

Updated: Jan 16, 2020
  • Author: Pranay Kathuria, MD, FACP, FASN, FNKF; Chief Editor: Tarakad S Ramachandran, MBBS, MBA, MPH, FAAN, FACP, FAHA, FRCP, FRCPC, FRS, LRCP, MRCP, MRCS  more...
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In adults, similar symptoms may develop, although cognitive changes may be discerned more easily, especially since exposures are more typically acute. In addition, adults with chronic exposure may develop other symptoms, such as the following:

  • Weakness of extensor muscles (eg, foot drop, wrist drop)

  • Delirium, hallucinations

Adults with lead poisoning frequently have sleep disorders. They may be hypersomnolent or have difficulty falling asleep at the appropriate time.

A meticulous environmental history is necessary in patients with suspected lead exposure. Depending on whether it is tailored to children or adults, it should include the following information:

Inquire about present and recent residences, including the location, age, and condition of the building; any history of renovations, inspections, or deleading programs; and any analyses of indoor and outdoor surfaces, water, and soil (if available). Ask about practices concerning changing of clothes and the presence of any work areas in the home.

In adults, obtaining a careful occupational and hobby history is important. More than 900 occupations have been associated with cases of lead poisoning. Always ask patients not just the name of their job but also the duties the job entails. This may uncover an obvious cause of exposure.

A history of ingesting illicit liquor may be an important clue to the etiology of lead poisoning. According to a study from a large urban emergency department (ED) involving patients who reported ingesting “moonshine” sometime during the previous 5 years, 51% had elevated BLLs, and 31% had BLLS in the very elevated range (ie, ≥ 50 µg/dL). [20]

Additionally, numerous reports document lead poisoning resulting from retained bullet or shrapnel fragments; thus, a history of military or other penetrating trauma may be important.

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