Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(6):759-760

See related article on lead poisoning

What is lead poisoning in children?

Lead poisoning is when there are high levels of lead in your child's blood. High levels of lead in the body can cause problems with the brain, intestines, kidneys, and bone marrow.

What causes it?

Usually it is caused by exposure to dust and old paint chips containing lead. Children also may be exposed through common household products (such as vinyl mini blinds or lead water pipes), toys, candy, or herbal remedies.

How do I know if my child has it?

Some symptoms are belly pain, headaches, vomiting, muscle weakness, trouble paying attention, behavior problems, trouble learning, seizures, impaired growth, hearing loss, and anemia (low levels of iron in the blood).

However, most U.S. children with high blood lead levels do not have any symptoms. This is why your doctor may suggest checking a lead level even when your child is healthy and feels well.

Who should be tested?

Talk with your child's doctor about who should be tested. Children with Medicaid or who may qualify for Medicaid should have their levels checked at one and two years of age. If your house was built before 1950, or was built before 1978 and has been renovated in the past six months, your children should be tested. Children should also be tested if they moved here from another country.

If your neighborhood is listed as a high-risk area by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your child should be tested. Check with your child's doctor or your local health department to find out if your zip code is in a high-risk area.

How is the test done?

Usually a blood sample is taken. Sometimes, a finger-stick sample can be used.

How is it treated?

If lead levels are very high, chelation (key-LAY-shun) therapy is needed. This is when a medicine is given by mouth or with a shot to bind the lead so it can leave the body in the urine or stool, and lower a child's lead level. However, most children do not need this kind of treatment. Finding the source of lead (such as paint, dust, contaminated dirt or toys) and removing it is usually all that is needed. If your child also has anemia, giving him or her iron as prescribed by your child's doctor will also help. See the table for more ways to manage lead poisoning in children.

Run tap water one to two minutes before filling any container; do not cook with hot tap water (instead, heat up cold water for cooking)
Avoid items that are known to contain lead
Take off shoes before entering the house; wipe shoes on a doormat
Provide a sandbox for play rather than letting children play in the dirt
Separate hobby areas of the house from family areas
If parents are exposed to lead at work, leave work clothes at work and shower before coming home; store home clothes and work clothes separately
Learn about healthy iron-rich diets for your children
Regularly clean toys, floors, windows, and other surfaces in the home
Follow up with your child's doctor

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

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