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.
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.
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.
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.