Carbon monoxide (CO) toxic gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless. Toxic CO fumes are produced by burning any material that contains carbon. Even minimal exposure to high levels of CO can cause permanent brain damage, neurological problems and death. Early symptoms of poisoning caused by exposure to carbon monoxide include fatigue, nausea and headaches. Many of the symptoms are mistaken for other conditions including the flu.
Most fatalities caused by CO exposure occur from the burning of fossil fuels including automobile exhaust and wood fires. However, any burning organic compound produces carbon monoxide including portable heaters, stoves, lawnmowers and other gas-powered appliances. In addition to CO exposure from burning organic compounds, people can also experience carbon monoxide intoxication. This is caused by inhaling volatile methylene chloride vapors found in paint removers, solvents and degreasers.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) estimates that approximately 400 individuals lose their lives every year by unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning not directly associated with fires. In addition, more than 20,000 individuals visit emergency rooms complaining of CO exposure were 4000 of those patients are hospitalized because of their condition.
Many doctors misdiagnose high levels of CO toxicity because of the wide spectrum of patient complaints and their vagueness when defining their symptoms. Most non-fatal CO exposures produce headaches, dizziness and nausea. However, other more serious symptoms result from high levels of exposure to the toxic gas. These include:
- Fatigue and flulike symptoms
- Palpitations and other chest pains
- Confabulation and hallucinations
- Dyspnea (shortness of breath) on exertion
- Confusion, weakness and dizziness
- Diarrhea, vomiting and nausea
- Abdominal pain
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Walking (gait) problems and balance issues
- Bizarre neurological signs and symptoms
- Abnormal behavior
- Loss of consciousness
- Visual disturbance
The longer an individual is exposed to high levels of CO toxicity, the more likely severe symptoms will occur. Many of the above issues can develop as chronic problems very rapidly. In addition, CO exposed victims can also suffer dentition (teeth alignment) issues, cognitive impairment (problems with concentration) and gradual-onset neuropsychiatric signs and symptoms.
Carbon monoxide is such a toxic poison because it competes with oxygen levels by binding to hemoglobin sites in the bloodstream. Hemoglobin is a life-sustaining molecule that carries oxygen in red blood cells, transporting it from the lungs throughout the body. The high level of carbon monoxide toxicity is great because it so easily binds to hemoglobin at a rate of almost 300 times higher than oxygen.
Diagnosing the Condition
In many situations, conditions from exposure to high levels of CO toxicity are difficult to diagnose accurately. Performing a comprehensive physical examination of the patient often produces limited results. However, exposure to carbon monoxide often produces serious vital signs including hypotension, hypertension, hyperthermia and tachycardia. Pallor skin tone is often more present from exposure than a skin tone that is cherry red in color.
Because physicians often misdiagnose CO toxicity, they are encouraged to remain highly suspicious of non-specific symptoms that appear like the flu. Doctors are expected to consider CO exposure when roommates and family members suffering the same symptoms arrive in an emergency room setting complaining of one or more of the above CO symptoms.
Doctors often use a test to measure carboxyhemoglobin levels accurately when carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected. Treatment often varies, but protocols usually include administering additional oxygen through a non-rebreather mask or through hyperbaric therapy. Placing the patient in a hyperbaric chamber is usually recommended if their symptoms include a loss of consciousness – even briefly – along with altered consciousness, ongoing chest pains, serious cardiopulmonary complications and a carboxyhemoglobin level estimated to be 25 percent or higher.
Preventing the Problem
Nearly every type of exposure to CO toxicity is easily prevented. Some symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be avoided by taking specific steps. Some of these steps include the avoidance of running gas engines in confined areas, having the heating unit in the building structure inspected for cracks at least one time every year and ensuring all combustion appliances are ventilated properly. Portable gas generators and barbecue grill should never be used indoors. In addition, ovens and stoves designed for cooking should never be used to heat the house.
Have you or your loved one been harmed by carbon monoxide exposure? Learn about your legal options here.