What to Know About Copper Toxicity

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 05, 2023
4 min read

When most people think of copper, they think of the metal that shiny pennies are made of. But copper is also an essential nutrient that affects your health.

Copper is used in many different ways throughout your body. It improves your skin, nails, and hair. It also helps your essential organs function. It even helps babies grow during pregnancy.

Copper makes up a portion of most proteins in your body. It’s essential for a healthy body that functions properly. 

Copper is an essential trace mineral. This means you only need very small amounts of it. Copper is normally bonded to proteins in your body, which is healthy. Sometimes copper doesn’t bind to your proteins and is known as unbound, or free. In this case, it can be unhealthy and even toxic. 

Inherited toxicity. Copper toxicity can be something that’s acquired, or it can be inherited. When it’s inherited it’s known as Wilson’s disease.

Acquired toxicity. Acquired copper toxicity can come from a few different sources. It can come from eating copper salts (copper sulfate). These blue-colored salts can form on unused cooking or food storage items like pots and pans. They can also form inside water pipes. If copper salts form in water pipes, it can contaminate water.

It’s possible to get copper toxicity from eating too much copper-rich food or dietary supplements. You can also ingest copper by drinking an acidic beverage or eating food that’s been stored in a copper container for an extended period.

Fatal when severe. Too much copper can be fatal. You could get severe toxicity from ingesting large amounts of copper salts through your skin. Copper can work its way through your internal organs and build up in your brain, liver, and lungs.

People who have copper toxicity can become very unwell. Nausea and vomiting are two symptoms of it. Others to watch out for are:

  • Diarrhea (may have a bluish color or contain blood)
  • Fever and bodily chills 
  • Muscular convulsion or weakness
  • Pain or burning sensation in the abdominal area
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice) 
  • Anemia 
  • Metallic taste in your mouth
  • Lack of urine due to kidney malfunction‌

Health benefits. Your body needs copper to carry out essential functions. Copper helps your body produce energy and healthy blood vessels. It supports your immune system. It’s also important for your nervous system because it helps brain development.

Effects of deficiency. It’s rare to develop a copper deficiency in the U.S. Some people are more likely to become copper deficient than others. Certain groups of vulnerable people include:

  • People who take zinc supplements, which can block the body’s absorption of copper
  • People who have celiac disease
  • People who have Menkes disease, which prevents the body from processing copper correctly

Deficiency in copper can affect your health. The following signs in your body can point towards a copper deficiency:

  • Pale, light patches of skin
  • Constant tiredness or fatigue
  • Weak bones
  • High cholesterol
  • Problems with your connective tissue
  • Reduced balance and coordination
  • More risk of infection due to lowered immune system

Copper intake requirements vary with age. Babies and young children need less of this vital nutrient than adults. The recommended intake from the U.S. National Institutes of Health is listed in micrograms (mcg):

  • Infants aged 0 to 12 months need 200 mcg per day
  • Children aged 1 to 3 years need 340 mcg per day
  • Children aged 4 to 8 need 440 mcg per day
  • Children aged 9 to 13 need 700 mcg per day
  • Teenagers aged 14 to 19 need 890 mcg per day
  • Adults over the age of 19 need 900 mcg per day

People who are pregnant or breastfeeding need to slightly increase their copper intake during that period by 100 to 400 mcg per day.

You usually get enough copper from the foods you eat. Some foods that contain copper are:

  • Shellfish
  • Beef liver
  • Whole grains and whole-grain products
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocados
  • Chickpeas
  • Tofu
  • Potatoes
  • Mushrooms

Copper toxicity is diagnosed through testing. There are different tests your doctor might recommend depending on your case. Tests for copper toxicity include:

Once copper toxicity is determined by your healthcare provider, there are several treatment options available.

Stomach pumping (gastric lavage). A tube is inserted in your stomach through your mouth to remove copper from your stomach.

Medications. Penicillamine or dimercaprol are some medications that can be prescribed by a doctor for copper toxicity. They are taken orally. 

Chelation. This medicine can be injected into your bloodstream. It causes copper to bond together. This makes it easier for your body to eliminate it through urine.

Hemodialysis. This is a blood filtration treatment. It draws blood from you and cleans it to remove the toxic copper. The clean blood is then introduced back into your body.