This article discusses poisoning from copper.
This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.
Copper can be poisonous if it is swallowed or inhaled.
Copper is found in these products:
- Certain coins - all pennies in the United States made before 1982 contained copper
- Certain insecticides and fungicides
- Copper wire
- Some aquarium products
- Vitamin and mineral supplements (copper is an essential micronutrient, but too much can be deadly)
Other products may also contain copper.
Swallowing large amounts of copper may cause:
- Abdominal pain
- Yellow skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
Touching large amounts of copper can cause the hair to turn a different color (green). Breathing in copper dust and fumes may cause an acute syndrome of metal fume fever (MFF). People with this syndrome have:
- Chest pain
- General weakness
- Metallic taste in the mouth
Long-term exposure may cause lung inflammation and permanent scarring. This can lead to decreased lung function.
Symptoms of long-term exposure include:
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Burning sensation
- Diarrhea (often bloody and may be blue in color)
- Liver failure, kidney failure
- Metallic taste in the mouth
- Muscle aches
Seek medical help right away. Do NOT make a person throw up unless poison control or a health care provider tells you to.
Before Calling Emergency
Have this information ready:
- The person's age, weight, and condition
- The name of the product (and ingredients and strength, if known)
- The time it was swallowed or inhaled
- The amount swallowed or inhaled
Your local poison control center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure.
Tests that may be done include:
- Blood and urine tests
- Chest x-ray
- ECG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
Treatment may include:
- Activated charcoal by mouth or tube through the nose into the stomach
- Breathing support, including oxygen, tube through the mouth into the throat, and breathing machine
- Dialysis (kidney machine)
- Fluids through a vein (by IV)
- Medicine to treat symptoms
- Medicine to reverse the effect of copper
Sudden (acute) copper poisoning is rare. However, serious health problems from long-term exposure to copper can occur. Severe poisoning can cause liver failure and death.
In poisonings from a long-term buildup of copper in the body, the outcome depends on how much damage there is to the body's organs.
Lewis JH. Liver disease caused by anesthetics, chemicals, toxins, and herbal preparations. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease: Pathophysiology/Diagnosis/Management. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 89.
Nelson LS. Copper. In: Hoffman RS, Howland MA, Lewin NA, Nelson LS, Goldfrank LR, eds. Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies. 10th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill-Medical; 2015:chap 95.
Theobald JL, Mycyk MB. Iron and heavy metals. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 151.
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.