Carbon Monoxide in Cigarette Smoke

How does carbon monoxide hurt smokers?

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What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, colorless and odorless gas that is produced when incomplete burning of carbon-containing fuels occurs. It is present in indoor and outdoor air in varying amounts from things like vehicle exhaust, gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, furnaces and cigarette smoke, which can contain high levels of carbon monoxide. 

Carbon Monoxide in the Human Body

When carbon monoxide is breathed into the lungs, it binds with hemoglobin in red blood cells to make carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) which is then transported into the bloodstream.

Once this happens, oxygen cannot bind with receptors on the same cell. And because CO is much faster at binding with hemoglobin than oxygen (about 200 times faster), when CO is present in the lungs, it wins the spot on red blood cells. This process diminishes the oxygen-carrying capacity in the bloodstream.

Carbon monoxide is quick to connect with red blood cells, but is slow to exit the body, taking as much as a day to be exhaled through the lungs.

An abundance of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream starves the body of oxygen and in the worst cases, can cause death.

Carbon Monoxide in a Smoker's Body

The normal level of COHb in the bloodstream from environmental exposure to carbon monoxide is less than one percent.

For smokers, factors like brand, how many cigarettes are smoked and the amount of time between cigarettes can cause COHb saturation in the blood to be much higher. A pack a day smoker can have a 3% to 6% COHb level in the blood,  two packs a day, 6% to 10%, and three packs a day, as much as 20%.

The health effects of CO saturation in the blood above 1% can cause detectable physical symptoms, such as:

  • Increased heart rate between 1% to 5%.
  • Reduced tolerance for exercise between 2% to 15%.
  • Headache and visual distortions can occur at high levels of CO saturation - between 15% to 20%.

Lack of oxygen in cells also forces the heart to work harder to distribute oxygen around the body, making CO a major contributor to heart disease, including heart attacks and atherosclerosis.

Secondhand smoke may also contain high levels of CO, so non-smokers who breathe in ETS will have increased levels of CO in their blood also.

Can Smoking Cause Carbon Monoxide Poisoning? 

Yes, it is possible to suffer CO poisoning from cigarette smoking if a large number of cigarettes are smoked in quick succession in an enclosed space. For most smokers though, symptoms of too much CO in their bloodstream, like a racing heart, headaches and nausea will get their attention and cause them to slow down on the smokes enough to not need medical help.

In one documented extreme case, a woman made a trip to the emergency room at her local hospital because she felt dizzy and had a headache. Blood work revealed an elevated level of carbon monoxide in her blood.  Her home was checked for a carbon monoxide leak and none was found.  

A week later she returned to the hospital with the same symptoms. This time, the carbon monoxide in her blood was nearly 25 percent. It's no wonder she felt so bad. She was a heavy smoker of over two packs a day and had smoked numerous cigarettes in a short period of time.

The doctor treated her with oxygen and she recovered, but the only way to solve her problem for the long tern was to quit smoking.

Symptoms of Carbon monoxide poisoning:

Breathing low levels of CO can cause:

  • fatigue
  • increased chest pain in people with chronic heart disease

In otherwise healthy people, inhaling higher levels of carbon monoxide may cause flu-like symptoms (with no fever) such as:

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • sleepiness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • confusion
  • disorientation

At very high levels, exposure to carbon monoxide will cause loss of consciousness and death, so it is important to seek medical attention if you experience any of the symptoms above.

A Word from Verywell:

Carbon monoxide is just one of many hazardous chemicals in cigarette smoke.

To date, more than 7,000 chemical compounds, 250 of which are known to be poisonous and upwards of 70 that have been identified as carcinogens are known to be present in cigarette smoke.

If you are still smoking, use this information to help you solidify your resolve to quit now. The resources below will help you get started.

Don't fear smoking cessation.  Others have done it successfully. You can too.

Sources:

American Journal of the Sciences. Recurrent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning from Cigarette Smoking. Volume 340, Issue 5, November 2010, Pages 427–428.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Public Health Statement for Carbon Monoxide. Updated January, 2015.

New York State Dept of Health Tobacco Control Program. Cigarette Smoking, Carbon Monoxide and Your Health. Accessed November, 2015.

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