Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Written by April Kahn | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas that is both odorless and colorless. It emanates from anything that produces combustion fumes. Common devices that produce these fumes include:

  • heaters
  • fireplaces
  • car mufflers
  • space heaters
  • charcoal grills
  • car and truck engines
  • portable generators

We are all exposed to small levels of carbon monoxide throughout the day. Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when we inhale too much of it. Keep in mind that any exposure is critical if it causes an inability to breathe adequately. Carbon monoxide poisoning can lead to tissue damage and possible death.

CO poisoning is extremely serious. If you believe you or someone else may be suffering from CO poisoning, seek emergency care immediately.

Signs and Symptoms of CO Poisoning

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are:

  • dull headache
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • chest pain

If you inhale a large amount of carbon monoxide, your body will begin to replace the oxygen in your blood with carbon monoxide. When this occurs, you could become unconscious. Death can occur in these cases.

If you’ve been excessively exposed to a source of carbon monoxide, seek medical attention even if no signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are present.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when there is a high amount of carbon monoxide present in the air. The actual poisoning happens when you inhale this air, especially in a place that isn’t well ventilated.

The risk for inhaling carbon monoxide-rich air increases if you are near any of the following:

  • fuel-burning space heater
  • gas stove or stovetop
  • water heater
  • fireplace
  • a running car or truck in a garage or closed-in space
  • furnace

In general, these sources put out a safe amount of carbon monoxide, but if they are used in closed-in spaces, the amount of carbon monoxide increases quickly. Place a carbon monoxide detector near these devices if they are stored in your home. Do not leave a car or truck running inside a garage or other closed-in space.

Diagnosing CO Poisoning

A member of the hospital staff will take a blood sample to test the amount of carbon monoxide in your blood. In parts per million (ppm), CO levels above 70 ppm in the blood can produce symptoms, and levels above 150 to 200 can result in dizziness, unconsciousness, and even death.

Treating CO Poisoning

Once you are in the hospital, you will receive treatment immediately if you are suspected of having carbon monoxide poisoning. Timeliness is essential to prevent life-threatening complications. A patient should expect a regimen of breathing treatments to combat poisoning.

Oxygen Treatment

The most important aspect of treating carbon monoxide poisoning is breathing in pure oxygen to increase oxygen levels in the blood. To do this, your healthcare provider will place an oxygen mask over your mouth and nose and ask you to inhale. If you are unable to breathe, you’ll receive oxygen through a ventilator.

Oxygen Chamber

Your healthcare provider may have you placed temporarily in a pressurized oxygen chamber. The air pressure in the oxygen chamber is twice the pressure of normal atmospheric air. This treatment increases blood oxygen levels rapidly, so it is used in severe cases of carbon monoxide poisoning or to treat carbon monoxide poisoning in pregnant women.

Emergency Care

If you think you may have carbon monoxide poisoning, do not attempt to treat the condition yourself. Access fresh air immediately and call 911. Do not try to drive yourself to the hospital; you may pass out while driving. Be sure to notify the 911 operator of the source of the carbon monoxide.

What Are the Long-Term Health Risks?

Complications can arise even from minor cases of carbon monoxide; these include:

  • brain damage
  • organ damage, including heart damage
  • death

Due to the seriousness of these potential complications, it is important to get help as soon as possible if you believe you have CO poisoning.

Preventing CO Poisoning

The following are preventive measures that can help you avoid carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Ensure there is plenty of ventilation in areas that contain gas, wood, fire-burning appliances, or carbon-emitting devices.
  • Purchase a carbon monoxide detector and hang it in an area near the carbon monoxide source.
  • Don’t fall asleep or sit in an idling car.
  • Don’t sleep near a gas or kerosene space heater.
  • Don’t ignore symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you have been exposed to a carbon monoxide source at home, move your family out of the home and call 911. Do not go back into the area until emergency services gives you the all clear. Also, make sure to change the batteries in your carbon monoxide and smoke detectors regularly to ensure they are in good working order.

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