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What is Iron Poisoning?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2016
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Iron poisoning is an extremely dangerous condition and the leading cause of death among children under six who ingest a toxic substance. Iron poisoning happens when someone ingests an excessive amount of iron. This typically presents when children eat iron supplements, particularly those designed to taste good, like kid’s vitamins. Such bottles are usually easy to open and don’t have a childproof cap. Even when they do, they do not necessarily prevent a child from opening the bottle open. For this reason, it is extremely important to keep all supplements containing iron far out of the reach of children.

Accidental ingestion of iron can be fatal if not treated quickly. Thus, even suspected ingestion of iron should be dealt with as a medical emergency. Do not induce vomiting, but instead take the child to the closest emergency room. Emergency services can be called if personal or public transportation is unavailable. Remember, time is of the essence.

Usually, iron poisoning occurs when a child takes 10 or more milligrams per 2.20 pounds (1 kg) of body weight. Therefore, a child weighing 60 pounds (27.21 kg) could easily suffer iron poisoning by ingesting 300 milligrams of iron. In adult pills, even a single pill, containing about 325 milligrams of iron could easily cause iron poisoning.

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At the hospital, doctors watch children for symptoms of iron poisoning, unless they know for certain the child has eaten a large amount of pills. Since iron irritates the stomach, early symptoms can include vomiting or diarrhea that contains blood. Children may also become lethargic.

If iron poisoning is determined or possible, health care professionals may administer a strong laxative to clear iron from the child's stomach. Severe cases may require intravenous (IV) chelation therapy. IV chelation therapy uses the chemical deferoxamine, which binds to iron and causes it to be secreted in urine. In some cases, doctors will pump the stomach through nasal gastric lavage. This is usually done only if the child is treated during the first hour after iron poisoning has occurred.

Children with iron poisoning who show no symptoms after six hours usually recover completely. Those with symptoms may need ongoing observation and treatment for several weeks. In severe cases, iron poisoning can cause liver failure two to five days after the iron was ingested. Several weeks after accidental overdose, iron poisoning may also cause scarring in the intestines.

Attempts to prevent iron poisoning is a far better approach than treating it after the fact. The most obvious cautionary approach is to keep iron away from children. If a child still gets access to iron pills, despite best efforts, then the child and any suspected sources of the iron (e.g., vitamin bottles) should be brought to the hospital. Different forms of iron have different digestion rates. Liquid forms of iron may be particularly harmful since the body doesn’t have to first break down a pill to get to the iron. Bringing the source of the iron poisoning, therefore, can help doctors properly assess and treat the situation.

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