Copper is an essential mineral but any disturbance in copper levels within the body can cause various symptoms and even lead to certain diseases. Humans source copper through foods and the human body only required a small amount of copper for its needs. Too little copper intake can lead to a deficiency just as too much of copper may lead to toxicity. Although rare, copper toxicity can be dangerous and even deadly.
What Causes Copper Toxicity?
Copper toxicity may be acquired or inherited. Acquired means that it develops during the course of life due to dietary or environmental factors. Inherited means that a genetic factor affects the way the body handles the copper that enters through food. Excess copper is excreted in bile after being removed by the liver.
Normally the body balances the levels of copper by eliminating excess copper that may be acquired through diet. However, the body’s ability to elimite this excess copper is limited. If a person is exposed to large amounts of copper then it can accumulate in the body since the elimination mechanisms are not sufficient to remove the excess copper.
Acquired Copper Toxicity
Acquired copper toxicity may occur when food contaminated with large amounts of copper are consumed. This can occur when foods are prepared in copper pots (such as boiling milk in a copper pot) or storing acidic foods for long periods in copper containers.
It may also occur when copper makes contact with the skin (usually wounded or burnt skin) usually for prolonged periods. Intentional consumption of copper salts such as copper sulfate may also result in copper toxicity but this is uncommon and usually part of a suicide attempt.
Inherited Copper Toxicity
Inherited copper toxicity is known as Wilson’s disease. It is present from birth but symptoms become apparent later once sufficient copper accumulates in the brain, liver and other vital organs to cause symptoms. It can cause liver scarring and failure, brain dysfunction, kidney and blood problems. If untreated, Wilson’s disease is fatal.
In Wilson’s disease the body’s ability to excrete excess copper is impaired due to defective genes that are inherited from parens. Therefore the copper accumulates in various tissues and organs. A person may be a carrier if only one defective gene is inherited and therefore will not develop Wilson’s disease or present with any symptoms.
Read more on Wilson’s disease.
How To Spot Copper Toxicity
The symptoms of copper toxicity develop gradually as the copper accumulates in different organs. Symptoms may also vary depending on the type of condition that led to copper toxicity. If a large amount of copper is consumed at one time then there may be symptoms of gastroenteritis – nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. This may allow for some of the copper to be expelled before it is absorbed into the body. However, when copper accumulates gradually then these initial acute symptoms are not present.
Jaundice is one of the common signs of copper toxicity. It indicates a liver problem and jaundice may therefore be a symptom in many different types of liver disease. With the liver being unable to properly process certain wastes like bilirubin (from the breakdown of red blood cells), these substances can become deposited in the skin, whites of the eyes (sclera) and lining of the mouth. It causes a yellowish discoloration in these areas.
Pain and Swelling
Abdominal pain is reported in copper toxicity and this is usually accompanied by a lack of appetite and fatigue. It may be some of the earliest symptoms of copper toxicity. However, these are non-specific symptoms that are seen with various other diseases. On its own, these symptoms cannot be attributed to copper toxicity.
Swelling of the abdomen may also occur. This is known as ascites and arises wih fluid retention as a result of liver dysfunction. There may also be swelling of the ankles and feet. However, kidney problems can also arise with copper toxicity and may therefore also be responsible for swelling in some instances.
Discolored Rings in the Eyes
Apart from yellowing of the sclera (whites of the eyes) due to jaundice, another characteristic eye symptom may also occur due to copper toxicity. This is known as Kayser-Fleischer rings. It is golden-brown and sometimes even greenish-gold rings around the iris of the eye. These rings arise when copper is deposited in part of the cornea and is considered one of the specific signs of copper toxicity but may also occur with other liver diseases.
Tremors and Poor Coordination
The nerve and brain dysfunction caused by copper accumulation in the body gives rise to a host of symptoms such as tremors and poor coordination. Tremors are rapid shaking movements that are most noticeable in the hands. It is due to repeated involuntary contraction and relaxation of muscles.
There may also be muscle weakness due to impaired nerve impulses that control the muscles. Furthermore muscle stiffness may be present. Coordination is also affected. This may range from poor coordination when doing tasks with the hands or even impaired coordination when walking which may lead to falls.
Speech and Swallowing Problems
Although nerves and muscle activity throughout the body can be affected, it is sometimes more noticeable in certain parts of the body. When the muscles of speech and swallowing are affected in copper toxicity, a person may present with slurred speech and difficulty swallowing. It may initially be mild and is sometimes mistaken for other conditions such as a stroke.
There are a host of other symptoms associated with copper toxicity that extend beyond the liver and nervous system. However, copper toxicity needs to be confirmed with certain diagnostic investigations.
- Easy bruising due to blood clotting disorders.
- Enlarged liver and/or spleen.
- Blood abnormalities such as anemia, thrombocytopenia and leukopenia.
- Urine abnormalities such as proteinuria and uricosuria.
- Joint and bone problems such as arthritis and osteoporosis.
Since copper toxicity can cause dysfunction and damage to several organs, the symptoms that may arise as the condition advances may vary depending on the organs that are more severely affected.