When Headaches Are a Sign of Poisoning

Headaches were associated with carbon monoxide poisoning in recent study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) As the winter months approach and people spend more time inside, hospitals might begin to see more and more cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.

A recent study found that a significant number of people who visited the emergency room during the winter months with a headache had elevated levels of carbon monoxide.

The researchers suggested that healthcare professionals keep carbon monoxide poisoning in mind when treating patients with headaches.

"Make sure your house has a carbon monoxide alarm."

This study was conducted by Dr. Ersin Aksay, from the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Izmir Tepecik Research and Educational Hospital in Izmir, Turkey, and colleagues to learn more about carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter months.

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when a person is exposed to carbon monoxide, a gas that cannot be detected by color, smell or taste.

Things that burn gas or wood, like gas stoves or cars, produce carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs more frequently in the winter when people are more likely to be inside of a confined space with heaters and stoves on.

Carbon monoxide poisoning may result in a headache, weakness and dizziness, but symptoms are different for everyone, which can make it hard to diagnose. Depending on the severity of the poisoning, it can result in heart damage, brain damage and death.

This recent study looked at people who came to the hospital with a headache during the winter months (February and March 2011) and how frequently they were diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning. It also used a non-invasive test for SpCO, a molecule that is present when carbon monoxide is inhaled.

During this time period, 482 headache patients visited the emergency room and were screened with the non-invasive SpCO measurement. Patients with elevated levels of carbon monoxide according to this non-invasive measurement underwent a more invasive blood draw. If their levels of carbon monoxide were still high, they were diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Of the 482 patients, 38 (7.9 percent) had a high carbon monoxide level on the non-invasive test. A total of 31 participants (6.4 percent) had elevated carbon monoxide levels on the invasive blood tests and were diagnosed with carbon monoxide.

Of the 31 participants who were diagnosed, 23 were women. All of the patients diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning had been using stoves improperly for heating.

The researchers also found that carbon monoxide poisoning was diagnosed more frequently during the early hours of the morning after midnight, before 4 am. and from 7 to 10 am.

The authors of this study concluded that headaches seemed to be a possible indicator of carbon monoxide poisoning, but screening tools that looked at levels of carbon monoxide in the blood were essential for making a diagnosis.

This study was published in Emergency Medicine Journal on October 15.

The authors did not release funding information and disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
October 17, 2013
Last Updated:
February 10, 2014