Argyria is a rare condition that causes the skin to turn blue or gray. This discoloration happens when the body comes into contact with excessive amounts of silver.
People come into contact with very small amounts of silver on a daily basis. It is present in food, drinking water, and even in the air that we breathe.
These trace amounts of silver are so small that the body can easily excrete them without experiencing any adverse effects.
However, prolonged exposure to small amounts of silver or a single exposure to a large dose can increase the risk of argyria.
The single characteristic symptom of argyria is blue or gray discoloration of the skin.
Skin discoloration or hyperpigmentation may also affect the mucous membranes, such as the:
- nasal passages
The conjunctival membranes of the eyes may also appear discolored.
Silver particles may enter a person’s body via the mouth or directly through the skin and mucous membranes.
Silver that enters the body via the mouth can cause generalized argyria. In generalized argyria, discoloration may affect the entire surface of the skin, as well as the mucous membranes and internal organs.
Silver that enters the body through the skin tends to cause localized argyria. With localized argyria, skin discoloration only affects the area that has come into contact with the silver particles.
Certain factors can affect the degree of skin discoloration. These include:
Levels of silver in the body
Higher levels of silver cause more significant discoloration.
Degree of sun exposure
Melanin is a natural skin pigment that causes the skin to darken on exposure to sunlight.
In argyria, sun exposure causes silver particles in the skin to stimulate the release of excess melanin.
As a result, parts of the body that receive more sun exposure may become significantly darker. These areas typically include the face, neck, and arms.
In the early stages of argyria, the skin may turn a blue color. Over months or years, the affected area may darken to a slate gray.
Experts do not yet know the amount of silver that is sufficient to cause argyria.
However, people who have the highest risk of developing the condition are those with jobs or hobbies that involve prolonged exposure to silver. Examples include silver mining, photographic processing, jewelry-making, and soldering.
The following factors can also expose people to excessive amounts of silver:
- long-term use of colloidal silver supplements
- long-term use of topical silver-containing medications that the FDA have not approved
- regular use of nasal sprays or eye drops containing silver
- prolonged use of cosmetics containing silver
- having silver dental fillings
- regular treatment with acupuncture needles
A doctor may request blood, urine, and stool samples from a person with suspected argyria. These will help them determine whether a person has come into contact with silver in the last week.
To confirm a diagnosis of argyria, the doctor may also take a skin biopsy. This procedure involves the removal of a small piece of skin for analysis under the microscope. The appearance of brown-black granules within the sample indicates the presence of silver.
The doctor will also need to rule out other conditions that can cause blue-gray skin discoloration. These include:
- Exogenous ochronosis. Skin discoloration that usually results from the prolonged use of skin-lightening creams, such as hydroquinone.
- Chrysiasis. Skin discoloration due to the long-term use of gold salts to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
- Hemochromatosis or “iron overload.” A condition in which the body absorbs too much iron. It can be fatal without treatment.
There is currently no cure for argyria, but recent research indicates that laser therapy using the quality switch (QS) laser may significantly improve skin discoloration. The QS laser delivers high-intensity pulses of light to affected areas of skin.
In 2015, researchers conducted a
The researchers concluded that a single treatment with the QS laser could offer both immediate and long-term improvement in skin discoloration.
However, scientists will need to conduct further studies to confirm the efficacy of the QS laser in treating argyria.
Additional recommendations for limiting further skin discoloration include:
- wearing sunscreen with a high sun protection factor
- limiting the amount of time in the sun
- wearing protective clothing and eyewear when working with silver
- avoiding medicines, supplements, and cosmetics containing silver
Very few people have died from overexposure to silver. In fact, people with argyria are unlikely to notice any negative health effects as a result of their condition.
However, they may experience psychological distress due to the changes in their skin color. Some may feel depressed, anxious, or socially withdrawn, especially if treatment fails to deliver the desired results.
People who are feeling depressed or anxious should tell their doctor, who may refer them to a registered counselor or therapist. Talking therapies can help people work through any psychological symptoms that may develop.
Argyria is mainly a cosmetic concern and does not negatively affect a person’s physical health. For some people, however, changes in skin color may cause significant psychological distress.
In terms of treatment for argyria, QS laser therapy appears to deliver significant, and sometimes complete, improvement in skin discoloration. However, scientists will need to conduct further studies to confirm this effect.