August 26, 2013

MEDICINE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: Chronic arsenic poisoning


Women in the nineteenth century obsessed about having light skin and used patent medicines and cosmetics containing arsenic to achieve the desired effect.  What would happen if these preparations were used repeatedly over a long period of time?  CAUTION - GROSS DETAILS AHEAD.

After as little as six months, the woman would develop darkening and discoloration of the skin and, predominantly on the hands and feet, raindrop shaped skin bumps resembling corns or warts.  Her breath and urine would smell like garlic and she would experience night blindness. Her fingernails would show horizontal white lines called Mees' lines.  Eventually, she would become partially paralyzed and liver and kidney functions would deteriorate.

To see photos of some of these manifestations of chronic arsenic poisoning, click here

If she were to take too much arsenic (and this actually happened to several unfortunate young ladies) she would experience acute arsenic poisoning characterized by headaches, confusion, severe diarrhea, drowsiness, convulsions, and death.

For additional reading and references, see the Extras section

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