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Definition

Chelation therapy uses special medication to remove heavy metals from the body. The medications, called agents, bind to the heavy metals in the blood. Once they bind they can leave the body in urine or stool. Examples of heavy metals include:

  • Lead
  • Arsenic
  • Mercury
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Gold

Reasons for Procedure

Chelation therapy is used as a treatment for metal toxicity. Once metals are taken into the body they can collect in the body tissue and be difficult to pass out of the body. The excess metals in organs can cause damage and limit function. Metals can be most harmful to organs like the brain, kidney, and liver.

Heavy metals can build up in the body quickly or over a long period of time. It may be caused by:

  • Metals that enter through your mouth—Examples include iron pills, eating paint chips or dirt with lead.
  • Water—Some water may have high levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. May be due to water supply or plumbing.
  • Food—Can occur with:
    • Pesticides used in farming or seafood
    • Mercury poisoning when eating some fish
    • Arsenic poisoning from food contaminated with pesticides
  • Air—Inhaling cigarettes, paint fumes, pesticide sprays, or gasoline fumes
  • Certain jobs, such as foundry, printing, mining, or petroleum work

Heavy metals can also build up from certain medical conditions such as:

Some have suggested other uses for chelation therapy. However, the only approved and research supported use is for treatment of metal toxicity.

Heavy Metal Poisoning Can Lead to Liver Damage
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Possible Complications

Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Risks may vary depending on the type of chelation therapy being used. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:

  • Swelling, burning, or pain at the injection site
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Allergic reaction to penicillamine, a chelation agent
  • Rash
  • Low blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Vision problems (iron chelation)
  • Kidney failure
  • Organ damage
  • Death

Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors that may increase your risk of complications such as:

What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

Your doctor will monitor the levels of the heavy metal in your blood with regular blood tests. Your doctor may also do:

Description of the Procedure

The agent and method that is needed will depend on what metal is causing the problem. Some agents are taken by mouth. Other are given by injection or through an IV. You may need to be watched in a clinical setting after the treatment to make sure you do not have severe side effects.

How Long Will It Take?

The amount of time for treatment will depend on the type of metal poisoning, and type of treatment.

Chelation therapy by injection or IV may need frequent outpatient visits over a period of weeks or months. Some IV drugs will need to be given over a period of hours during each visit.

Will It Hurt?

If you need an injection or IV, there may be some discomfort when the needle is inserted.

Post-procedure Care

At the Care Center

Right after the procedure, the staff will monitor you for side effects, such as a headache or rash.

At Home

Some dietary changes may be advised to help remove the metal from your body. It will also be important to avoid further exposure.

Call Your Doctor

Call your doctor if any of these occur:

  • Pain, burning, or other urinary problems
  • Fever
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Persistent allergy symptoms, such as itching, hives, or rash
  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes— jaundice
  • Lightheadedness, with or without fainting
  • Persistent nausea or vomiting
  • Cognitive problems
  • Clumsiness
  • Vision problems
  • Worsening symptoms

If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.

RESOURCES

American Lead Poisoning Help Association, Inc.  http://alphalead.org 

Occupational Safety and Health Administration  https://www.osha.gov 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety  http://www.ccohs.ca 

Public Health Agency of Canada  http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca 

References

Chelation: Therapy or “therapy”? National Capital Poison Center website. Available at: http://www.poison.org/articles/2011-mar/chelation-therapy. Accessed March 14, 2018.

Chelation therapy. Iron Disorders Institute website. Available at: http://www.irondisorders.org/chelation-therapy. Updated July 17, 2009. Accessed March 14, 2018.

Flora SJ, Pachauri V. Chelation in metal intoxication. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010;7(7):2745-2788.

Heavy metal poisoning. NORD—National Organization for Rare Disorders website. Available at: https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/heavy-metal-poisoning. Accessed March 14, 2018.

Kalia K. Flora SJ. Strategies for safe and effective therapeutic measures for chronic arsenic and lead poisoning. J Occup Health. 2005;47(1):1-21.

Lead toxicity—emergency management. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:  https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T910481/Lead-toxicity-emergency-management  . Accessed March 14, 2018.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board James P. Cornell, MD
  • Review Date: 03/2018
  • Update Date: 06/13/2017