Copper toxicity can be caused by genetic conditions or exposure to high levels of copper in food or water.
We’ll help you learn how to identify copper toxicity, what causes it, how it’s treated, and if there’s a connection to intrauterine devices (IUDs).
First, we’ll define what a healthy amount of copper is and what’s a dangerous level.
Copper is a heavy metal that’s perfectly safe to consume at low levels. You have about 50 to 80 milligrams (mg) of copper in your body that’s mostly found in your muscles and liver, where excess copper is filtered out into waste products like pee and poop.
The normal range for copper levels in the blood is 70 to 140 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
Your body needs copper for a number of processes and functions. Copper helps develop tissues that make up your bones, joints, and ligaments. You can get plenty of copper from your diet.
Copper toxicity means you have more than 140 mcg/dL of copper in your blood.
Some reported symptoms of copper poisoning include:
- passing out
- feeling sick
- throwing up
- blood in your vomit
- black poop
- abdominal cramps
- brown ring-shaped markings in your eyes (Kayser-Fleischer rings)
- yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
Copper poisoning may also cause the following mental and behavioral symptoms:
- feeling anxious or irritable
- having trouble paying attention
- feeling overexcited or overwhelmed
- feeling unusually sad or depressed
- sudden changes in your mood
Long-term copper toxicity can also be fatal or cause:
- kidney conditions
- liver damage or failure
- heart failure
- brain damage
Copper in water
Copper toxicity is often caused by unintentionally ingesting too much copper from water supplies that contain high levels of copper. Water can be contaminated by farm operations or industrial waste that runs off into nearby reservoirs or public wells.
Water traveling through copper pipes can absorb copper particles and become contaminated with too much copper, especially if the pipes are corroded.
Copper in food
Although rare, the same thing can happen to food served on rusting copper dishes or alcoholic drinks prepared in corroded copper cocktail shakers or copper drinkware. The important detail is corrosion of the copper.
Medical conditions and disorders
Some genetic conditions can also affect your liver’s ability to filter out copper properly. This can result in chronic copper toxicity. Some of these conditions include:
- Wilson’s disease
- liver disease
- anemia (low red blood cell count)
- thyroid issues
- leukemia (blood cell cancer)
- lymphoma (lymph node cancer)
- rheumatoid arthritis
You don’t need to avoid copper altogether. Copper is an essential part of your diet. Balanced copper levels can generally be regulated by your diet alone.
Some copper-rich foods include:
- shellfish, such as crabs or lobster
- organ meats, such as liver
- seeds and legumes, such as sunflower seeds, cashews, and soybeans
- green vegetables, such as asparagus, parsley, or chard
- whole grains, such as oats, barley, or quinoa
- dark chocolate
- peanut butter
With copper, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Consuming a lot of copper-rich food and taking copper dietary supplements can raise blood copper levels. This can result in acute copper toxicity, sometimes called acquired copper toxicity, in which your blood copper levels spike suddenly. They can be returned to normal with treatment.
IUDs are T-shaped birth control devices that are implanted into your uterus to prevent you from getting pregnant. These devices do this by using hormones or inflammatory processes.
The ParaGard IUD has copper coils intended to cause local inflammation in your uterus. This prevents sperm from fertilizing eggs by inflaming uterine tissue and thickening cervical mucus.
There’s no clear evidence that copper IUDs significantly increase the risk of copper toxicity in the blood, unless you already have a condition that affects your liver’s ability to process copper.
However, there may be other side effects when using a copper IUD.
Other issues related to copper IUDs
Reactions caused by a copper IUD can include:
- periods that are heavier or longer than usual
- lower abdominal cramps and discomfort
- menstrual cramps that happen even when you’re not having your period
- symptoms of pelvic inflammatory disease, such as pain during sex, fatigue, and abnormal discharge from your vagina
See your doctor as soon as possible if you notice any of these symptoms or copper toxicity symptoms after getting a ParaGard copper IUD. They can diagnose and treat any reactions that your body may be having to the IUD.
Copper toxicity is usually diagnosed by measuring the levels of copper in your bloodstream. To do this, a healthcare provider takes a sample of your blood using a needle and vial, which they send to a laboratory for analysis.
Your doctor may also recommend additional tests, such as:
- blood tests to measure ceruloplasmin or vitamin B-12 levels
- urine tests to measure how much copper is being filtered out through pee
- tissue sample (biopsy) from your liver to check for signs of copper filtration issues
Your doctor may recommend copper diagnostic tests if they notice mild symptoms of copper poisoning during a physical exam.
You may also be tested if you’ve gone to the emergency room after developing severe symptoms from ingesting too much copper at once.
Some treatment options for acute and chronic copper toxicity include:
- Chelation. Chelators are medications injected into your bloodstream. The medication helps bond all the copper in your blood together so it can make it to your kidneys for filtration and release from your body through pee.
- Gastric lavage (stomach pumping). This procedure removes copper you ate or drank directly from your stomach using a suction tube.
- Medications. Certain medications can treat copper toxicity, often along with other treatments. Some oral medications include penicillamine (Cuprimine) or dimercaprol (BAL in oil).
- Hemodialysis. This process removes blood from your body and filters out waste using a device that mimics your kidneys. Filtered blood is then returned to your body.
Think your water may be contaminated? Call your local water district, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with copper toxicity and suspect that copper in the water you’re drinking is the source.
To remove copper from your water, try the following:
- Run cool water for at least 15 seconds through the faucet that’s attached to an affected copper pipe. Do this for any faucet that hasn’t been used in six or more hours before you drink the water or use it to cook.
- Set up water filtration equipment to purify contaminated water from your faucets or other affected water sources in your home, such as your refrigerator. Some options include reverse osmosis or distillation.
Drinking contaminated water or taking supplements with copper may put you at risk of copper toxicity.
Certain liver or kidney conditions that prevent you from properly metabolizing copper can also expose you to copper toxicity, even if you’re not exposed to copper contamination. See your doctor to diagnose these conditions or if you notice any new or worsening symptoms.
IUDs haven’t been directly linked to copper toxicity, but they can cause other symptoms that may require treatment or IUD removal.