Clinical chameleons: an emergency medicine focused review of carbon monoxide poisoning

Patrick Chow Yuen Ng, Brit Long, Alex Koyfman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that is found in the environment, in the home, and in the human body as a normal part of mammalian metabolism. Poisoning from CO, a common exposure, is associated with significant morbidity and mortality if not recognized and treated in a timely manner. This review evaluates the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning, conditions that present similar to CO poisoning, and an approach to the recognition and management for CO poisoning. CO poisoning accounts for thousands of emergency department visits annually. If not promptly recognized and treated, it leads to significant morbidity and mortality. CO poisoning poses a challenge to the emergency physician because it classically presents with non-specific symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. Due to nonspecific presentations, it is easily mistaken for other, more benign diagnoses such as viral infection. The use of specific historical clues such as exposure to non-conventional heat sources or suicide attempts in garages, as well as the use of targeted diagnostic testing with CO-oximetry, can confirm the diagnosis of CO poisoning. Once diagnosed, treatment options range from observation to the use of hyperbaric oxygen. CO poisoning is an elusive diagnosis. This review evaluates the signs and symptoms CO poisoning, common chameleons or mimics, and an approach to management of CO poisoning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)223-229
Number of pages7
JournalInternal and Emergency Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Carbon monoxide
  • Chameleon
  • Headache
  • Hyperbaric oxygen
  • Vomiting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine
  • Emergency Medicine


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