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Is there a test for carbon monoxide poisoning?

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Updated January 24, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Is there a test for carbon monoxide poisoning?

A reader is complaining of nausea only while at work in her office building. Personally, work always makes me want to throw up, but she suspects it's the building and wants to know: Is there a test for carbon monoxide poisoning?

Answer: No.

There is a test for carbon monoxide levels in the bloodstream, but there is currently no reliable test to diagnose carbon monoxide poisoning. Doctors have to use the patient's history, as well as checking carbon monoxide levels, to decide if the situation fits the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Doctors are looking for ways to identify carbon monoxide poisoning more effectively and more quickly. Many times, carbon monoxide poisoning is mistaken for other medical problems. It's historically hard to diagnose because the gas is colorless and odorless, so patients have no idea they've been exposed.

There are quick methods to see if carbon monoxide levels are higher than they should be in the bloodstream, but they're not universally used yet. Some fire departments have devices that measure one form of carbon monoxide levels in the blood. They're used on firefighters while they're putting out fires. Those devices can also be used on patients, and that's likely to happen more often in the future.

For now, the best bet is to see a doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Persistant headaches
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Nausea

If you think your symptoms might be from carbon monoxide poisoning -- or something else in your environment -- be sure to tell your doctor.

Sources:

Bledsoe BE, et al. "Use of pulse co-oximetry as a screening and monitoring tool in mass carbon monoxide poisoning." Prehosp Emerg Care. 2010 Jan-Mar;14(1):131-3. PubMed PMID: 19947878.

Czaplik M, Brokmann J, Rossaint R. "Case Report: young woman with reduced state of consciousness - rescue team stumble across curious cause". Anasthesiol Intensivmed Notfallmed Schmerzther. 2010 Jan;45(1):18-21. Epub 2010 Jan 20. German. PubMed PMID: 20091472

Gosselin NH, Brunet RC, Carrier G. "Determination of carboxyhaemoglobin in humans following low-level exposures to carbon monoxide." Inhal Toxicol. 2009 Nov;21(13):1077-91. PubMed PMID: 19852549.

Partrick M, et al. "Monthly variations in the diagnosis of carbon monoxide exposures in the emergency department." Undersea Hyperb Med. 2009 May-Jun;36(3):161-7. PubMed PMID: 19860138.

Piatkowski A, et al. "A new tool for the early diagnosis of carbon monoxide intoxication." Inhal Toxicol. 2009 Nov;21(13):1144-7. PubMed PMID: 19852557.

Swadron SP. "Pitfalls in the management of headache in the emergency department." Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2010 Feb;28(1):127-47, viii-ix. PubMed PMID: 19945603.

 

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