What is Argyria?
Argyria is a condition that causes your complexion to turn blue or gray. This happens when your body has been overexposed to silver. The condition can occur after a large-dose exposure or prolonged exposure to small amounts of silver.
Silver isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and has had some medical uses. For example, it’s been used in bandages, salves, and medications like eye drops.
Argyria is rare and not life-threatening, but it can have a serious impact on your life.
Continue reading to learn more about argyria, its causes, and what you can do to avoid it.
What are the symptoms of argyria?
The main and most obvious symptom is that your skin turns blue-gray. This might start in a small area or with just a slight tinge, but it can eventually cover your entire body.
For some people, the first symptom is gray or brown discoloration of the gums. Other areas of hyperpigmentation may occur in your:
- nail beds
- conjunctival membranes
- mucous membranes
The amount of discoloration depends on the amount of silver that’s entered your body.
If you’ve been exposed to a very high level of silver, argyria can develop quite rapidly. If you use products containing only small amounts of silver, it will likely progress slowly. In some cases, the progression can take months or even years.
Areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun may turn much darker than areas that are generally covered up.
What causes argyria?
Silver is a naturally occurring substance. You come into contact with low levels of silver every day. Traces of silver can be found in food, water, and even in the air.
Silver can enter your body through your mouth, mucus membranes, or skin.
You can develop argyria if you have far too much silver in your body, which generally results from prolonged exposure. When silver reaches your stomach, it prompts a chemical reaction. As the silver breaks down, it enters your bloodstream.
Within a week, most of the silver we consume leaves the body through our feces. Some goes out with urine.
But when you take in too much silver, your body has a tough time keeping up with it. Whatever silver isn’t discarded gets deposited in the skin and other tissues, where it continues to build up. When your skin is then exposed to light, it turns blue-gray.
How do you end up with too much silver in your body?
One way you may end up with too much silver in your body is if your job involves prolonged exposure to silver. This might happen if you work in the silver industry, jewelry industry, or in photographic processing.
Some products you consume or use on your body may also contain silver. These include:
- antimicrobial health tonics
- medication containing silver salts
- colloidal silver dietary supplements, usually marketed as “cure-alls”
- silver sutures used in surgery
- silver dental fillings
In a list of ingredients, silver may be identified as:
- ionic silver
- native silver
- silver alginate
- silver protein
- silver sulphadiazine
- colloidal silver, colloidal silver protein, or true colloidal silver
Using eye drops or makeup that contain silver can also cause localized argyria of the eye.
Wearing silver jewelry or using silver utensils doesn’t usually cause argyria. But in some cases, silver needles used for acupuncture or silver earrings can cause localized argyria.
Dietary supplements that contain silver can also interfere with your body’s ability to absorb certain medications, such as:
- quinolone antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin (Cipro), norfloxacin (Noroxin), and ofloxacin
- tetracycline antibiotics
- penicillamine (Cuprimine)
Who’s at risk?
Exposure to excessive amounts of silver is the only known risk factor for argyria. What isn’t clear is exactly how much silver or how much exposure can put you at risk.
You’re more likely to develop argyria if you:
- take dietary supplements or medications containing silver
- regularly use eye drops or cosmetics containing silver
- have an occupation that involves prolonged exposure to silver
Workplace exposure may occur in:
- silver mining
- silver refining
- jewelry making
- silverware and metal alloy manufacturing
- photographic processing
How’s it diagnosed?
If you notice blue or gray discoloration on your skin, eyes, or nails, see your doctor right away.
We all have trace amounts of silver in our bodies and there are a number of ways to measure it.
Blood and urine samples are a good way to find out if you’ve been overexposed to silver within the previous week. Your doctor can also measure this in a stool sample.
To diagnose argyria, your doctor will need to take a small tissue sample from your skin. This is known as a skin biopsy. Microscopic examination of skin cells can reveal the telltale blue-gray pigmentation.
Once your diagnosis is confirmed, you can take steps to avoid further exposure to silver.
Is there a cure?
Argyria has no cure. However, recent trials with laser treatment are proving to be promising for helping with the skin discoloration. Benefits have been seen with just one treatment. The use of laser treatment for argyria is limited, so more research is needed to determine its efficacy.
Here are some steps you can take steps to prevent further exposure:
- If you must work with silver, cover your skin with gloves and other protective wear.
- Avoid dietary supplements and medicines that contain silver.
- Avoid cosmetics containing silver.
Since light causes the skin pigmentation to darken, use sunscreens liberally. When you’re out in the sun, cover your skin as much as possible.
What’s the outlook?
Once you have argyria, you may not be able to reverse the effects. However, some success has been seen in people who’ve had laser treatment.
Argyria is not a life-threatening condition. Silver isn’t associated with cancer, neurological or reproductive problems, or other ill effects.
The main concern with argyria is cosmetic. For some people, this can take an emotional toll and impact their quality of life.
If you feel anxious or depressed about the effects of argyria, talk to you doctor. They can refer you to an appropriate therapist or counselor to help you cope.