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Carbon Monoxide in Cigarette Smoke

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Updated June 11, 2014

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

Carbon Monoxide in Cigarette Smoke
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What Carbon Monoxide is:

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, colorless and odorless gas that is produced as a result of incomplete burning of carbon-containing fuels. Cigarette smoke can contain high levels of CO.

What Happens When CO is Inhaled:

When inhaled, CO quickly binds with hemoglobin in red blood cells in the lungs, creating COHb. This can affect the amount of hemoglobin available for the transport of oxygen throughout the body, which may in turn lead to symptoms of CO poisoning.

Symptoms of CO Poisoning:

Breathing low levels of CO can cause:

  • fatigue
  • increased chest pain in people with chronic heart disease
In otherwise healthy people, inhaling higher levels of carbon monoxide may cause flu-like symptoms (with no fever) such as:
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • sleepiness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • confusion
  • disorientation
At very high levels, exposure to carbon monoxide will cause loss of consciousness and death.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon Monoxide in Cigarette Smoke:

Cigarette smoke can contain high levels of carbon monoxide, and smokers generally have COHb levels in the blood that are many times greater than those who do not smoke. Because secondhand smoke may also contain high levels of CO, nonsmokers who breathe in ETS have increased levels of CO in their blood as well.

More on the Chemicals in Cigarette Smoke:

Secondhand smoke is a toxic cocktail of over 7,000 chemical compounds, 250 of which are known to be poisonous and upwards of 70 that have been identified as carcinogens.

Sources:
Carbon Monoxide Indoors. May, 2004. American Lung Association.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Fact Sheet. 24 July, 2007. Washington State Dept. of Health.

 

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