What Is Arsenic Poisoning?

Arsenic poisoning is accidental or intentional exposure to arsenic in some form. In many cases, the poisoning takes place by either handling products containing high doses of arsenic without proper protection or ingesting foods or liquids containing unhealthy doses of arsenic. The range of symptoms with arsenic poisoning can range from mild headaches to death, depending on the extent of the exposure to the toxic chemical.

While many people tend to think in terms of arsenic poisoning taking place due to someone intentionally mixing the product into food or drink, it is possible to experience the poisoning by contact with substances that have not been doctored by anyone. For example, some types of lumber products once used arsenic as a preservative. Anyone sawing lumber treated in this manner could conceivably be poisoned over time due to exposure to airborne fragments and the sawdust that results of the sawing activity. In like manner, untreated water sources may contain amounts of arsenic that would build up in the system over time and begin to cause distress.

In the early stages, arsenic poisoning often begins with a feeling of general lethargy accompanied by mild headaches. As time goes on, the headaches and lack of energy become more pronounced. Abdominal pains may also begin to develop. If left untreated, the presence of arsenic in the system will begin to interfere with the body’s natural function and lead to organ failure and finally death.

Fortunately, there are a number of tests that can detect the presence of arsenic in the body. Various tests call for samples of hair, blood, fingernails, and urine. Urine tests can detect the presence of exposure to arsenic over the last couple of days, while hair and fingernail testing can be used to create an accurate record of the accumulation of arsenic in the body for as much as the past twelve months. Depending on the level of arsenic present, various medications can be administered to begin eliminating the chemical from the body and minimize the potential for long-term health problems related to the poisoning.

Avoiding arsenic poisoning normally means wearing protective gloves and clothing when handling any products containing arsenic. Working with older lumber calls for wearing a face mask in order to minimize the possible chances of contamination. It is also a good idea to not drink water from sources that are suspect.

Should an individual suspect he or she has developed arsenic poisoning for any reason, it is imperative to seek medical attention immediately. The testing process can return results quickly, making it possible to begin treatment before any additional damage can be done to the body or any of its systems.

What Are the Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning?

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.

Fingernail Changes

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.

Gastrointestinal Distress

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.

Respiratory Problems

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.

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