Elemental mercury is usually harmless if it is touched or swallowed. It is so thick and slippery that it usually falls off the skin or leaves the stomach and intestines without being absorbed.
A lot of damage can occur, though, if elemental mercury gets into the air in the form of small droplets that are breathed into the lungs. This often occurs by mistake when people try to vacuum up mercury that has spilled onto the ground.
Breathing in enough elemental mercury will cause symptoms right away. These are called acute symptoms. Long-term symptoms will occur if small amounts are inhaled over time. These are called chronic symptoms. Chronic symptoms may include:
Depending on how much mercury is inhaled, permanent lung damage and death may occur. Long-term brain damage from inhaled elemental mercury can also occur.
Unlike elemental mercury, inorganic mercury is usually poisonous when swallowed. Depending on how much is swallowed, symptoms may include:
- Burning in the stomach and throat
- Bloody diarrhea and vomiting
If inorganic mercury enters your bloodstream, it can attack the kidneys and brain. Permanent kidney damage and kidney failure may occur. A large amount in the bloodstream may cause massive blood and fluid loss from diarrhea and kidney failure, leading to death.
Organic mercury can cause sickness if it is breathed in, eaten, or placed on the skin over a long periods of time. Usually, organic mercury causes problems over years or decades, not right away. This means that being exposed to small amounts of organic mercury every day for years will likely cause symptoms to appear later. But, a single large exposure can also cause problems.
Long-term exposure will likely cause symptoms in the nervous system, including:
- Numbness or pain in certain parts of your skin
- Uncontrollable shaking or tremor
- Inability to walk well
- Blindness and double vision
- Memory problems
- Seizures and death (with large exposures)
Being exposed to large amounts of the organic mercury called methylmercury while pregnant may cause permanent brain damage in the baby. Most health care providers recommend eating less fish, especially swordfish, while pregnant. Women should talk to their provider about what they should and should not eat while pregnant.