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Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2005. Updated by Dr Ebtisam Elghblawi, Tripoli, Libya, April 2017.
Argyria is a condition characterised by bluish-grey to slate-grey staining of the skin and mucous membranes caused by deposition of silver particles in the skin. There are several sources of exposure to silver.
Silver enters the body either by mechanical impregnation of the skin by small silver particles or by ingestion of silver compounds. Most occupational argyria is due to the direct impregnation of silver salts from prolonged contact with skin. Silver taken orally or absorbed by mucous membranes is carried through blood bound to the plasma protein albumin. Some of this silver is carried as a salt and may be deposited in various tissues, with highest concentrations found in the skin, liver, spleen and adrenals. Most absorbed silver is excreted in faeces and some in the urine.
Silver toxicity is rare today. However, there have been several reports of people getting argyria after using colloidal silver-based products as ‘cure-alls’. In several cases patients were manufacturing colloidal silver suspension at home using instructions downloaded from the Internet. Circus freak Captain Fred Walters the blue man, ingested silver nitrate to deepen his colour and improve his income, but died from the habit.
There may be a genetic predisposition for argyria.
What are the clinical features of argyria?
Whether or not a person exposed to prolonged or high levels of silver develops argyria depends on many factors including the dose and form of exposure, the duration of exposure, and the route of exposure (ie: ingested, inhaled, skin contact). What is apparent is that the degree of hyperpigmentation in patients is directly correlated with the amount of silver present.
Generalised argyria usually begins with a grey-brown staining of the gums which later progresses to involve large areas of the skin.
Localised argyria can occur in the eye (ocular argyrosis) from the overuse of silver containing eyedrops or cosmetic makeup. Sometimes, this may be the first objective sign of generalised argyria. Other forms of localised argyria are the appearance of blue macules at sites of acupuncture needles and silver earring sites.
Argyria is a rare condition and unfamiliarity with this condition may lead to its misdiagnosis. The diagnosis of argyria is established by skin biopsy. Unfortunately, the pigmentation is permanent and almost untreatable.
To prevent further exposure, stop ingestion of silver and application of all silver containing remedies. Protective wear can be used to prevent occupational exposure. Sunscreens may be helpful in preventing further darkening and discolouration. Cosmetic camouflage may be useful in disguising the appearance.
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