Back

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Definition

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas that is found in combustion fumes. Inhaling too much carbon monoxide results in poisoning, which can be fatal.
Carbon Monoxide Binding to Hemoglobin
Nucleus factsheet image
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

Carbon monoxide is easily absorbed through the lungs. Hemoglobin carries oxygen in the blood to the entire body. Carbon monoxide binds tightly with hemoglobin and takes the place of the oxygen. Tissue then becomes starved for oxygen. Brain tissue is very much at risk.
Faulty or improperly vented equipment causes a build up of carbon monoxide in semi- or enclosed spaces. Exposure can be the result of:

Risk Factors

Carbon monoxide poisoning is more common in infants or older people. Other factors that may increase your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

Symptoms

Symptoms related to carbon monoxide poisoning are usually vague. They can be split into acute and chronic symptoms.

Acute Symptoms

  • Headache
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Disturbed vision
  • Wheezing
  • Cough
  • Hoarse voice
  • Loss of balance
  • Joint pain

Chronic Symptoms

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headache
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Disturbed vision
  • Loss of appetite
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Lightheadedness or vertigo
  • Tiredness
  • Memory loss
  • Mood disorder and emotional distress
  • Diarrhea and abdominal pain
  • Reduced sex drive

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Questions may include:
Tests may include:

Treatment

Move away from the source of the carbon monoxide. Breathe fresh air outdoors. Mild symptoms usually start to resolve after getting away from the gas.
Always seek medical care at the closest emergency room. Explain that you think you may have been exposed to carbon monoxide. The doctor will give you oxygen until your symptoms go away and carbon monoxide levels in your blood drop.
Other therapies may include:

Prevention

Avoiding exposure to carbon monoxide is the key to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning. Since the gas has no odor or color, you will not know if it is present. The following suggestions can reduce your chance of exposure:

RESOURCES

US Consumer Product Safety Commission http://www.cpsc.gov

US Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

Public Health Agency of Canada http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca

References

An introduction to indoor air quality: carbon monoxide (CO). Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/co.html. Updated March 14, 2013. Accessed December 30, 2013.

Breimer LH, Mikhailidis DP. Could carbon monoxide and bilirubin be friends as well as foes of the body? Scand J Clin Lab Invest. 2010;70(1):1-5.

Carbon monoxide poisoning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/co. Updated October 31, 2012. Accessed December 30, 2013.

Carbon monoxide poisoning. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated October 2, 2013. Accessed December 30, 2013.

Juurlink DN, Buckley NA, et al. Hyperbaric oxygen for carbon monoxide poisoning. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005;(1):CD002041.

Weaver LK, Hopkins RO, et al. Hyperbaric oxygen for acute carbon monoxide poisoning. N Engl J Med. 2002; 347:1057-1067.

World Health Organization (WHO) Study Group on Tobacco Product Regulation. Waterpipe tobacco smoking: health effects, research needs and recommended actions by regulators. World Health Organization website. Available at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2005/9241593857%5Feng.pdf. Accessed December 30, 2013.

Revision Information