What Is Lithium Toxicity?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Lithium toxicity is a potential side effect of lithium-based medications used in the management of bipolar disorder. In addition, people can develop poisoning after exposure to consumer products like batteries that may contain lithium. Acute and chronic forms can be observed, and both require treatment to help the patient clear the lithium and recover. This condition is a risk for patients who take lithium, and monitoring is necessary to watch for early signs of problems.

Dialysis can be used to treat lithium toxicity.
Dialysis can be used to treat lithium toxicity.

In small doses, lithium appears to contribute positive effects to patients with bipolar disorder. It was once more widely used to treat a variety of conditions, before doctors grew concerned about the side effects. Patients can develop lithium toxicity when this metal builds up in their bodies and impairs renal function, the digestive tract, and the central nervous system. This chronic form can occur slowly over time, or a patient can have an acute case after taking too many pills.

Intravenous fluids may be administered to help counteract lithium toxicity.
Intravenous fluids may be administered to help counteract lithium toxicity.

Acute cases usually involve some gastrointestinal symptoms in addition to neurological problems like tremors and slurred speech. In chronic cases, patients may not develop nausea and diarrhea, but they can notice the symptoms of central nervous system impairment. These may grow worse over time and could contribute to memory problems, movement disorders, and other issues. Some patients develop a rash, which indicates an allergic reaction, rather than toxicity.

Telemetry devices may be used to record cardiac movements of a patient with lithium toxicity.
Telemetry devices may be used to record cardiac movements of a patient with lithium toxicity.

A doctor may recommend that a patient on lithium undergo regular screening to check on kidney function and assess central nervous system health. These measures can allow care providers to catch chronic lithium toxicity early, before it does damage to the kidneys. Patients also need to be careful about dental care, as this medication can contribute to dry mouth, which may lead to dental cavities, receding gums, and other problems even when the patient doesn't have lithium toxicity.

Patients can develop lithium toxicity when this metal impairs the digestive tract.
Patients can develop lithium toxicity when this metal impairs the digestive tract.

Treatment can include hospitalization while the patient receives stabilizing care. Intravenous fluids may be necessary, along with cardiac monitoring. If the patient develops kidney damage, dialysis can take over temporarily for the kidneys. Some patients may develop permanent impairments as a result of severe lithium toxicity, which could require ongoing monitoring and treatment of chronic conditions like kidney damage. Patients can reduce these risks by taking the medication as directed, receiving regular follow up care, and talking to their doctors about health risks associated with long-term lithium use to determine if they need to take any additional measures to protect their health.

Memory problems may occur as a result of lithium toxicity.
Memory problems may occur as a result of lithium toxicity.
Impaired renal function is a sign of lithium toxicity.
Impaired renal function is a sign of lithium toxicity.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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