The Full Story
The patient was 48 years old. She went to the emergency room because she felt dizzy and had a headache. Doctors performed an extensive medical workup and found that her symptoms were caused by high carbon monoxide levels in her blood.
A week later, she again went to the emergency room with dizziness and a headache. Once again, she was diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning. The local gas company had examined her home and could not find a source of carbon monoxide.
The reason for both episodes of carbon monoxide poisoning was heavy tobacco smoking, more than two packs a day. Everyone has a small amount of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream. Smokers usually have more than three times as much as non-smokers. This patient's level was more than fifteen times that of a typical non-smoker.
Our red blood cells carry oxygen to every part of our body. When carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream, it attaches to red blood cells and prevents oxygen from doing so. The carbon monoxide is then circulated in the blood instead of oxygen, preventing the brain, heart, and other body organs from receiving the oxygen they need. Most cases of carbon monoxide poisoning are caused by fire, an engine running in an enclosed space, or from malfunctioning gas or wood-burning appliances.
This patient smoked so many cigarettes, so close together, that nearly a quarter of the oxygen in her bloodstream was replaced by carbon monoxide. Doctors treated her immediate symptoms by giving her oxygen. The only prevention was for her to stop smoking.
If someone needs just one more reason to give up tobacco, perhaps this could be it: distressing symptoms, two trips to the emergency room in a short period of time, lots of poking, prodding, and testing - and a big bill at the end.
For information about carbon monoxide poisoning, call Poison Control. Poison specialists are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-222-1222.
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Sen S, Peltz C, Beard J, Zeno B. Recurrent carbon monoxide poisoning from cigarette smoking. Am J Med Sci. 2010 Nov;340(5):427-8.