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Diagnosing & Treating Carbon Monoxide Poisoning


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Carbon Monoxide is responsible for 50,000 ER visits every year. However, diagnosing Carbon Monoxide poisoning is challenging. Even when it is diagnosed correctly, there are limited treatment options. Humans have known about Carbon Monoxide poisoning since the Middle Ages so why is it so difficult to diagnose and treat? Let’s take a deep dive into the challenges and take a look into the future to evaluate how we can make a change.


Diagnosing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

When a patient goes into the Emergency Room, the first question a doctor will ask is “what are your symptoms?” Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning are vague and vary, including headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and drowsiness. However, these are also symptoms of a hangover, the flu, anxiety, COVID, and food poisoning.

emergency room monitor

Because Carbon Monoxide poisoning has similar symptoms to many other common illnesses, it often gets misdiagnosed. This is extremely problematic because Carbon Monoxide can leave its victims with long-term organ damage.


If a doctor suspects their patient may have Carbon Monoxide poisoning, they are in a race against time. They must run a COHb arterial blood test within 4 hours of the poisoning. If their patient was treated with oxygen on the way to the ER, doctors only have 1 hour to run the test. There are some limitations to this testing method.

  1. COHb blood tests are not available at all labs.

  2. These tests do not detect chronic poisoning, only acute.

  3. Because these tests are arterial, they are invasive and very painful for the patient.


Treating Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Once the blood test is complete and Carbon Monoxide poisoning is confirmed, there is only one recognized treatment: oxygen. And you can get oxygen in one of 2 ways:

  1. Hyperbaric oxygen – pressurized oxygen is often recommended for patients with severe poisoning who have lost consciousness.

  2. Supplemental oxygen – breathing in pure oxygen helps eliminate Carbon Monoxide from the blood stream. This therapy is less harsh on the lungs, heart, and other vital organs.

Although oxygen treatments assist with removing Carbon Monoxide from the bloodstream, it does not remove it for the body and is ineffective when it comes to healing organ damage.


The Best Treatment is Avoidance

Because there are a lack of treatment options when it comes to Carbon Monoxide poisoning, we believe prevention is key. There are steps you can take to ensure that you are protecting yourself and your loved ones from Carbon Monoxide.

Family standing in front of garage.
  • Do not use outdoor appliances inside, near open windows, or close to your home. This includes grills, and gas lanterns. Generators produce as much carbon monoxide as a whole parking lot full of cars, so keep generators at least 20 feet from your home, garage, and structures.

  • Turn your car off in the garage; never leave it idling. Remember to clear snow near your car’s exhaust in the winter.


An Easier Way to Diagnose Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Accidents happen. When a person is exposed to Carbon Monoxide, there is a better way to diagnose it: a breath test.

Breath tests allow someone to simply breathe into the device to detect Carbon Monoxide in a person’s blood. It is fast, FDA approved, non-invasive, and can be used in the field by EMTs, firefighters, and Med Techs. For these reasons, we believe it is much better than the arterial blood test that is currently used for diagnosis.

These devices can tell you instantly if there is Carbon Monoxide in someone’s system and can quickly test large groups. Not only are they effective at diagnosing Carbon Monoxide poisoning, but they are very cost efficient in comparison to other diagnostic methods.

  • TOXCO – this monitor can detect Carbon Monoxide in 3 ways: mouthpiece sampling, mask sampling, and environmental sampling. It provides simplicity and is hygienic, reliable, and compliant.

  • microdot CO – this device requires minimal breath volume, making it ideal for first responders and vulnerable populations including children. It is cordless, easy to use, and highly durable.


Next Steps – You Can Help!

NCOAA believes that all fire departments, emergency medical services, hospitals, and school nurses should use devices like these. It will assist them in effectively and efficiently helping the public. And they will help everyday people like you and me know when to get treatment for Carbon Monoxide poisoning.


Hospital team standing in front of hospital

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