Mercury toxicity occurs when a person is exposed to mercury. Mercury is a naturally occurring metal. Short- or long-term exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems.
Mercury has several forms, including:
Metallic mercury and methylmercury easily reach the brain and are more harmful than mercury salts.
Mercury toxicity may occur when you are exposed to toxic amounts of mercury due to:
Metallic mercury can be found in consumer products, such as fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, thermostats, and old thermometers. Mercury, combined with other elements, is also found in some types of dental fillings. Research has not shown that this type of filling is harmful to people. Although thimerosol is no longer used in vaccines in the United States, the mercury-containing compound is still used in some countries. Research has not shown that it is harmful to people.
Anyone can develop mercury toxicity as a result of mercury exposure. Certain people are more likely to be exposed to mercury. The following factors increase your chances of being exposed to mercury. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
In addition, pregnant women, their unborn fetuses, and young children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury exposure.
Widespread Toxicity in Infant
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Mercury can cause harmful effects before symptoms develop. It is important to contact your doctor right away if you think you have been exposed to mercury, regardless of your symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they may include:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids and tissues will be tested for mercury. This can be done with:
The most important thing is to stop mercury exposure. Talk with your doctor about other treatments for you. Treatment options include:
Chelation therapy involves putting a chemical known as a chelating agent into the bloodstream. The chelating agent combines with mercury to help remove it from the body. Chelating agents may be given by pill or by injection.
To help reduce your chances of getting mercury toxicity, take the following steps:
If you spill a small amount of metallic mercury:
United States Environmental Protection Agency
United States Food and Drug Administration
Public Health Agency of Canada
Kelly BC, Ikonomou MG, et al. Mercury and other trace elements in farmed and wild salmon from British Columbia, Canada. Environ Toxicol Chem. 2008;27(6):1361-1370.
Oken E, Bellinger DC. Fish consumption, methylmercury and child neurodevelopment. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2008;20(2):178-183.
Swaran JS, Pachauri V. Chelation in metal intoxication. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010 Jul;7(7):2745-2788.
ToxFAQs for mercury. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=1195&tid=24. Updated October 25, 2015. Accessed February 18, 2016.
What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm110591.htm. Updated June 10, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2016.
12/10/2010 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T907056/Mercury-measurement-urine: Vearrier D, Greenberg MI. Care of patients who are worried about mercury poisoning from dental fillings. J Am Board Fam Med. 2010;23(6):797-798.
Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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