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The Collaborative International Dictionary

Erethism \Er"e*thism\, n. [Gr. ? irritation, fr. ? to stir, rouse, fr. ? to stir: cf. F. ['e]r['e]thisme.] (Med.) A morbid degree of excitement or irritation in an organ.


n. 1 (context pathology English) Abnormal excitement of a bodily organ or tissue. 2 Any unusual or morbid overexcitement.


n. an abnormally high degree of irritability or sensitivity or excitability


Erethism or erethism mercurialis is a neurological disorder which affects the whole central nervous system, as well as a symptom complex derived from mercury poisoning. This is also sometimes known as the mad hatter disease. Historically, this was common among old England felt-hatmakers who used mercury to stabilize the wool in a process called felting, where hair was cut from a pelt of an animal such as a rabbit. The industrial workers were exposed to the mercury vapors, giving rise to the expression “mad as a hatter.” Some believe that the character the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is an example of someone suffering from erethism, but the origin of this account is unclear. The character was almost certainly based on Theophilus Carter, an eccentric furniture dealer who was well known to Carroll.

It is commonly characterized through behavioral changes such as irritability, low self-confidence, depression, apathy, shyness and timidity, and in some extreme cases with prolonged exposure to mercury vapors, delirium, personality changes and memory loss occur as a result. People with erethism find it difficult to interact socially with others, with behaviors similar to that of a social phobia. Although most of the effects of erethism are neurological, some physical problems arise as well, including a decrease in physical strength, “headaches, general pain, and tremors after exposure to metallic mercury” as well as irregular heartbeat. It has been documented that “the tremor in the hands can be so severe that the victim is unable to hold a glass of water without spilling its contents.”

The primary risk factor for erethism is long-term exposure to mercury vapors and gasses at high levels. One group at risk for mercury poisoning is industrial workers and those exposed to high levels of mercury residing naturally in the environment. Erethism is not as serious an issue as it was back before acceptable working condition regulations were enforced. Preventing mercury levels from getting too high limits the amount available for inhalation.

There is a risk of mercury poisoning in the home in some cases. Exposure to mercury vapor may stem from cultural and religious reasons where mercury is sprinkled on the floor of a home or car, burned in a candle, or mixed with perfume. Due to widespread use and popular concern, the risk of toxicity from dental amalgam has been exhaustively investigated. To date, no convincing evidence of toxicity has been found.

One treatment of mercury poisoning was to admit fresh air to the patient by having him go outside daily as much as possible. Stimulants such as ammonia have also been documented to help restore pulse to a normal rhythm. For a more comprehensive reading of treatment, see Mercury poisoning, 'Treatment' section.

Usage examples of "erethism".

I did not like Eddu because he suffered from the most overwhelming adolescent sexual erethism I have ever encountered.

That slave, for all his squalid person and sexual erethism and detestable character, was an experienced traveler, and told us or showed us many things of use or interest.