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Copper Excess

By

Larry E. Johnson

, MD, PhD, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Last full review/revision Jun 2020| Content last modified Jun 2020
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NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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Copper excess can be caused by a genetic abnormality that stops the body from getting rid of copper (Wilson disease) or, rarely, from consuming too much copper.

Most of the copper in the body is located in the liver, bones, and muscle, but traces of copper occur in all tissues of the body. The liver excretes excess copper into the bile for elimination from the body. Copper is a component of many enzymes, including ones that are necessary for the following:

  • Energy production

  • Formation of red blood cells, bone, or connective tissue (which binds other tissues and organs together)

  • Antioxidant action (to help protect cells against damage by free radicals, which are reactive by-products of normal cell activity)

(See also Overview of Minerals.)

Copper excess (toxicity) may also be acquired or inherited (as Wilson disease).

Consumption of excess copper is rare. People may consume small amounts of excess copper in acidic food or beverages that have been in copper vessels, tubing, or valves a long time.

Consuming even relatively small amounts of copper may cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Large amounts, usually consumed by people intending to commit suicide, can damage the kidneys, inhibit urine production, and cause anemia due to the rupture of red blood cells (hemolytic anemia) and even death.

Rarely, liver damage or cirrhosis occurs in children. It probably results from drinking milk that has been boiled or stored in corroded copper or brass vessels.

Diagnosis

  • Blood or urine tests

  • A liver biopsy

Doctors measure copper and ceruloplasmin levels in blood or urine. However, a liver biopsy to measure the amount of copper and look for damage in the liver is usually required for diagnosis unless large amounts of copper were consumed.

Treatment

  • Pumping the stomach

  • Dimercaprol injected into a muscle

  • Penicillamine

  • Hemodialysis

If large amounts of copper were consumed, the stomach is pumped.

If copper toxicity has caused problems such as anemia or has damaged the kidneys or liver, dimercaprol is injected into a muscle, or a drug that binds with copper, such as penicillamine, is given to remove excess copper. Children with liver damage are treated with penicillamine.

If used early, hemodialysis (a procedure that filters the blood) may be effective.

Occasionally, death occurs despite treatment.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
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