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LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012-.

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LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet].

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Last Update: October 30, 2017.



Copper is an essential trace element that is included in some over-the-counter multivitamin and mineral supplements, even though copper deficiency is quite rare and supplementation is rarely needed. The amounts of copper found in typical supplements has not been associated with serum enzyme elevations or with clinically apparent liver injury. However, accidental or intentional copper overdose can cause an acute liver injury and chronic ingestion of excessive amounts of copper can result in copper overload and chronic liver injury.


Copper is a heavy metal and essential trace element that is found in many human enzymes and transcription factors. The recommended dietary allowance is approximately 1.5 mg per day. Adequate amounts of copper are found in most Western diets, with highest levels found in shellfish, chocolate and nuts. Total body copper concentrations are 50 to 120 mg (0.79 to 1.9 mmol), which is far lower than those of zinc or iron. Copper deficiency is rare and usually due to malnutrition and reduced dietary intake, but can also occur with strict vegetarian diets. Chronic oral exposure to excessive amounts of copper can result in liver injury which is also typical of Wilson disease, an inherited disease caused by a mutation in the ATPase7B gene, which encodes a hepatic enzyme responsible for the transmembrane transport and excretion of copper. The metabolic defect in Wilson disease leads to accumulation of free copper in liver and blood and secondarily in other organs, particularly brain and kidney. The disease usually presents in childhood or adolescence with neurologic syndromes, signs of advanced liver disease and hemolytic anemia. Excessive dietary intake or environmental exposure to copper is rare in the developed world, but is found in developing countries and particularly India. Nutritional supplements with copper generally have replacement doses of copper and available in many forms. Elemental copper for oral intake is not available in United States.


Acute hepatotoxicity of copper is usually the result of ingestion of toxic amounts (1 to 10 g), often as a suicide attempt. In children, accidental poisoning can occur, particularly with ingestion of coins. Initial symptoms may be metallic taste and gastrointestinal distress due to gastric or small bowel erosions. Acute overdoses of copper can lead to early appearance of cardiovascular collapse, coma and death within hours. Liver injury tends to arise after 24 to 72 hours and is characterized by marked elevations in serum aminotransferase levels, minimal increases in alkaline phosphatase, early appearance of hepatic failure, and elevation in prothrombin time and ensuing jaundice. Shock and renal failure may also be present as well as rhabdomyolysis and severe hemolytic anemia. The overall clinical pattern of the liver injury is that of acute hepatic necrosis, and the hepatic manifestations resemble the acute toxicity of iron and zinc, and can be reproduced in animals. Shock and rhabdomyolysis may contribute to the serum enzyme elevations while hemolytic anemia may account for some of the increase in total bilirubin levels. Therapy of copper overdose includes gastric lavage, fluid replacement, dimercaprol (BAL) and penicillamine, with blood transfusions for hemolytic anemia and dialysis for acute renal failure.

Chronic liver injury from copper occurs with Wilson disease, but has also been described after chronic excessive ingestion of copper and perhaps as a result of chronic environmental exposure, such as from copper tubing used in hemodialysis.

Likelihood score: A[HD] (well known cause of acute and chronic liver injury but only when taken in high doses).

Drug Class: Trace Elements and Metals



Copper Sulfate – Generic


Trace Elements and Metals


Product labeling at DailyMed, National Library of Medicine, NIH


Cupric Sulfate 7758-98-7 Cu.H2-O4-S
Chemical Structure for Copper


References updated: 30 October 2017

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    (Review of hepatotoxicity published in 1999 mentions that copper hepatotoxicity may be acute or chronic, the acute poisoning resembling iron hepatotoxicity, the chronic injury leading to cirrhosis and possibly being the cause of Indian childhood cirrhosis).
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    (27 year old man took an overdose of copper sulfate which led to vomiting and lethargy followed by cyanosis, oliguria, methemoglobinemia, intravascular hemolysis, shock and death 16 hours after the ingestion).
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    (18 year old man took an overdose of cupric sulfate and developed vomiting and lethargy [serum copper 142 µg/dL, normal <131], was treated with gastric lavage, penicillamine and dimercaprol [BAL], but developed myoglobinemia, hemolysis and rhabdomyolysis [peak CK 3,804 U/L on day 6] with mild renal and liver injury, ultimately resolving after 18 days).
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    (2 year old girl spilled copper powder on her face and inhaled some of the contents, developing cough, dyspnea and cyanosis and, on admission, had hypoxia and acidosis, developing respiratory and renal failure and evidence of liver injury over the next several days [AST 105 U/L, ammonia 120 µmol/L, prothrombin index 20%], but ultimately recovered).
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    (29 year old man developed vomiting and diarrhea shortly after taking overdose of copper sulfate [homemade rat poison], with fever and acute psychosis, initially with normal liver and renal tests, developing mild hemolytic anemia and renal dysfunction, treated with EDTA and dimercaprol [BAL], and resolving within 1 week).
  • Hassan S, Shaikh MU, Ali N, Riaz M. Copper sulphate toxicity in a young male complicated by methemoglobinemia, rhabdomyolysis and renal failure. J Coll Physicians Surg Pak 2010; 20 (7): 490-1. [PubMed: 20642956]
    (22 year old man accidentally drank a cup of copper sulfate and developed severe vomiting, abdominal pain and dehydration, treated with gastric lavage, penicillamine and dimercaprol [BAL], with increase in methemoglobinemia, acute renal failure, liver dysfunction [bilirubin 2.9 mg/dL, ALT 85 U/L, Alk P 30 U/L] and adult respiratory distress syndrome, eventually improving and resolving within 2 weeks).
  • Reuben A, Koch DG, Lee WM; Acute Liver Failure Study Group. Drug-induced acute liver failure: results of a U.S. multicenter, prospective study. Hepatology 2010; 52: 2065-76. [PMC free article: PMC3992250] [PubMed: 20949552]
    (Among 1198 patients with acute liver failure enrolled in a US prospective study between 1998 and 2007, 133 were attributed to drug induced liver injury, but none were attributed to ingestion of copper).
  • Devarbhavi H, Dierkhising R, Kremers WK, Sandeep MS, Karanth D, Adarsh CK. Single-center experience with drug-induced liver injury from India: causes, outcome, prognosis, and predictors of mortality. Am J Gastroenterol 2010; 105: 2396-404. [PubMed: 20648003]
    (Among 313 cases of drug induced liver injury seen between 1997 and 2008 at a large hospital in Bangalore, India, none were attributed to copper ingestion or copper overdoses).
  • Valsami S, Stamoulis K, Lydataki E, Fountoulaki-Paparizos L. Acute copper sulphate poisoning: a forgotten cause of severe intravascular haemolysis. Br J Haematol 2012; 156: 294. [PubMed: 21981599]
    (25 year old man presented 18 hours after overdose with copper sulfate with hemolytic anemia [hematocrit initially 44% falling to 25% in 3 days], with rhabdomyolysis and mild renal and liver impairment).
  • Naha K, Saravu K, Shastry BA. Blue vitriol poisoning: a 10-year experience in a tertiary care hospital. Clin Toxicol (Phila) 2012; 50: 197-201. [PubMed: 22372787]
    (Among 35 cases of acute copper poisoning presenting at a single referral center in Southern India over a 10 year period, the average age was 29 years, symptoms included vomiting [85%], diarrhea [46%], epigastric pain [43%], blood in stool [31%), hematuria [26%], burning chest pain [17%] and jaundice [37%] and 8 patients died).
  • Weiss KH, Stremmel W. Evolving perspectives in Wilson disease diagnosis: treatment and monitoring. Curr Gastroenterol Rep 2012; 14: 1-7. [PubMed: 22083169]
    (Review of the diagnosis and management of Wilson disease, including the role of genetic testing and the choice of medical therapies).
  • Rifkin J, Miller MD. Copper-associated hepatitis in a Pembroke Welsh corgi. Can Vet J 2014; 55: 573-6. [PMC free article: PMC4022027] [PubMed: 24891642]
    (6 year old Welsh corgi developed poor appetite and weight loss and was found to have liver injury [bilirubin not given, ALT 1366 U/L, Alk P 201 U/L], laparotomy showing an abnormal looking liver with fatty change, fibrosis and excessive copper, later responding to penicillamine, ursodiol andS-adenosylvmethionine with normalization of ALT levels).
  • Breuer C, Oh J, Nolkemper D, Achilles EG, Fischer L, Eglite I, Guesmer C, et al. Successful detoxification and liver transplantation in a severe poisoning with a chemical wood preservative containing chromium, copper, and arsenic. Transplantation 2015; 99: e29-30. [PubMed: 25827325]
    (4 year old boy ingested wood preservative with chromated copper arsenate and rapidly developed abdominal pain and vomiting followed by acute liver and kidney failure treated with dialysis, BAL and liver transplantation 5 days later; liver showing "toxic liver damage").
  • Chalasani N, Bonkovsky HL, Fontana R, Lee W, Stolz A, Talwalkar J, Reddy KR, et al.; United States Drug Induced Liver Injury Network. Features and outcomes of 899 patients with drug-induced liver injury: The DILIN Prospective Study. Gastroenterology 2015; 148: 1340-52.e7. [PMC free article: PMC4446235] [PubMed: 25754159]
    (Among 899 cases of drug induced liver injury enrolled in a US prospective study between 2004 and 2013, none of the cases were attributed to copper ingestion).


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