What is the pathophysiology of carbon monoxide (CO) toxicity?

Updated: Sep 18, 2018
  • Author: Guy N Shochat, MD; Chief Editor: Gil Z Shlamovitz, MD, FACEP  more...
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Answer

CO toxicity causes impaired oxygen delivery and utilization at the cellular level. CO affects several different sites within the body but has its most profound impact on the organs (eg, brain, heart) with the highest oxygen requirement.

Cellular hypoxia from CO toxicity is caused by impedance of oxygen delivery. CO reversibly binds hemoglobin, resulting in relative functional anemia. Because it binds hemoglobin 230-270 times more avidly than oxygen, even small concentrations can result in significant levels of carboxyhemoglobin (HbCO).

An ambient CO level of 100 ppm produces an HbCO of 16% at equilibration, which is enough to produce clinical symptoms. Binding of CO to hemoglobin causes an increased binding of oxygen molecules at the three other oxygen-binding sites, resulting in a leftward shift in the oxyhemoglobin dissociation curve and decreasing the availability of oxygen to the already hypoxic tissues.

CO binds to cardiac myoglobin with an even greater affinity than to hemoglobin; the resulting myocardial depression and hypotension exacerbates the tissue hypoxia. Decrease in oxygen delivery is insufficient, however, to explain the extent of the CO toxicity. Clinical status often does not correlate well with HbCO level, leading some to postulate an additional impairment of cellular respiration.


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