The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are vague and related to many conditions.
Carbon monoxide binds to the hemoglobin to create a molecule called carboxyhemoglobin (COHb), which interferes with the body’s ability to transport and use oxygen, especially in the brain. Because of that, the symptoms are similar to those of other conditions that affect the brain and cause a decrease in oxygenation (known as hypoxia):
Because it is a gas and will usually affect everyone exposed to it, carbon monoxide is easier to identify when the symptoms strike several people at once. Due to its chameleon-like nature, it’s still not an easy task. Headaches and nausea in isolation rarely cause anyone to think of carbon monoxide poisoning as the most likely culprit.
Even so, when carbon monoxide affects multiple patients at the same time, it is often dismissed as an infection or bad food rather than carbon monoxide exposure.
As carbon monoxide poisoning progresses, symptoms get more serious, but are still extremely vague and difficult to identify as specific to carbon monoxide exposure:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Blurry or double vision
- Loss of consciousness
There is not a clear timeline to show how long it takes to progress from a headache to loss of consciousness.