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Understand How Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Is Tested & Treated

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Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that, if allowed to build up in the body’s bloodstream, can cause poisoning. Carbon monoxide has the ability to actually replace oxygen in the body’s red blood cells, which causes the poisoning and can lead to significant tissue damage and eventual death.

At Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital, carbon monoxide poisoning cases are rare. On average, fewer than two tests for carbon monoxide are requested per month, according to Tony Bartell, MT(AMT), manager of SPCH’s Laboratory.

Symptoms of CO poisoning may include:
headache 
dizziness 
weakness 
nausea 
vomiting 
chest pain 
confusion 

In the hospital, if a patient suspects they have been exposed to CO from improperly ventilated appliances and engines or from being in a burning building, for instance, and are exhibiting some of the above symptoms, clinicians would conduct a blood test. That blood sample would go to the hospital laboratory for analysis.

“Our lab uses a GEM 4000 carboxyhemoglobin analyzer to test blood for carbon monoxide. It is a very accurate test, done on equipment we calibrate and maintain daily,” Bartell said.

The interpretation of that lab test can vary depending on the individual patient. For example, at SPCH, a result of 0.5 to 1.5% of carbon monoxide in the blood is considered in the “normal” range based on clinical chemistry guidelines and machine manufacturer recommendations. This range is consistent with other laboratories across the United States. However, if an individual smokes one to two packs of cigarettes per day they already have a higher range of CO in their body from smoking; their normal range could be in the 4 to 5% range. 

A toxic level of CO in the blood is 20%, and a lethal level is 50%.

If you suspect you have been exposed to carbon monoxide, get into fresh air and call Oregon Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. Toxicologists there can help assess whether you need to go to the hospital’s Emergency Department.

If a patient has elevated levels of carbon monoxide in their blood, treatment includes oxygen therapy. In the emergency room, you may breathe pure oxygen from a mask, which helps oxygen reach your organs and tissues.

For more extreme exposure, you will be transferred to another hospital to spend time inside a pressurized oxygen chamber, called a hyperbaric chamber, which speeds the replacement of carbon monoxide with oxygen in your blood. 

To avoid common causes of carbon monoxide exposure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following: 

Never use a gas range or oven to heat a home.
Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage.
Never run a generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage, or other enclosed structure, even if the doors or windows are open, unless the equipment is professionally installed and vented. Keep vents and flues free of debris, especially if winds are high. Flying debris can block ventilation lines.
Never run a motor vehicle, generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine within 20 feet of an open window, door, or vent where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.
Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern, or portable camping stove inside a home, tent, or camper.

If you think you or someone you are with may have carbon monoxide poisoning, get into fresh air and seek emergency medical care. The Emergency Department at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital is always open, 24 hours, seven days a week.