Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

 Oxygen might be married to hemoglobin, but hemoglobin is secretly much more attracted to carbon monoxide.

Oxygen vs Carbon Monoxide

car exhaust fumes
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Hemoglobin, the important part of red blood cells that is supposed to carry oxygen, binds to carbon monoxide (CO) about 200 times stronger than it binds to oxygen. The bond is so strong, it can actually cause carbon monoxide to wedge its way onto a red blood cell that's already snuggled up to an oxygen molecule and boot the oxygen off.

Oxygen that’s not connected to hemoglobin doesn’t get where it needs to go. That means a patient with carbon monoxide poisoning has less oxygen getting to important organs like the heart and brain.

Signs and Symptoms

carbon monoxide detector
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The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are very similar to those of other conditions affecting the central nervous system. It's important to consider the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning whenever someone around the sources listed above experiences any of the following signs or symptoms:

If more than one person in the same location starts exhibiting similar signs and symptoms at the same time, carbon monoxide poisoning is a very real possibility. Immediately call 911 and get out of the building if possible.

The best defense against carbon monoxide poisoning is to have a carbon monoxide detector in your home.

Telltale Coloring

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Unlike other conditions that decrease oxygen in the blood, patients with carbon monoxide poisoning are almost never pale or blue (cyanotic). Although it doesn't happen every time, skin coloring in patients with severe carbon monoxide poisoning can become bright pink or flushed red, much like that of a sunburn.

This is a very late sign and often won’t appear at all or not until the patient is already unconscious or dead. If you see the bright red coloring, get the patient out of the building (and you, too) immediately. Once safely outside, call 911.


wood fire
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Carbon monoxide can leak from anything that burns gas or wood, such as:

  • Gas or wood stoves
  • Gas water heaters
  • Gas clothes dryers
  • Fireplaces or fire pits
  • Gas or charcoal barbecues
  • Gas or oil space heaters
  • Smudge pots
  • Gas or diesel generators
  • Gas or diesel cars and trucks
  • Motorboats
  • Motorcycles
  • Gas-powered lawn equipment

If it has to burn a fossil fuel to work, it is giving off carbon monoxide.


man wearing an oxygen mask in the hospital
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If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, follow these steps:

  1. Remove the patient from the area immediately. Breathing fresh air will stop the poisoning from getting worse. However, the patient still needs immediate attention.
  2. Call 911. Treating carbon monoxide poisoning requires professional assistance and oxygen delivery equipment. If 911 is not available, take the patient to emergency medical providers.
  3. Follow the basics of first aid until help arrives.

The only treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is to replace the carbon monoxide in the patient's blood with lots of oxygen. At a minimum, the patient will have to breathe high concentrations of oxygen for several hours to reverse the poisoning.

In worst case scenarios, patients must be treated in barometric chambers, which provide 100% oxygen in high-pressure environments to root out all the carbon monoxide and push oxygen back where it belongs.

A building or a vehicle is not safe until the source of the carbon monoxide is found and fixed. Call a professional to diagnose and repair whatever is causing the carbon monoxide leak. Never go back into a potentially dangerous area until it has been cleared of all dangerous gasses.