Objective: To evaluate systematically the characteristics of headache due to acute exposure to carbon monoxide.
Background: Headache is the most commonly reported symptom in acute carbon monoxide poisoning. While it is often described as throbbing and diffuse, a systematic characterization of carbon monoxide-associated headache has never been published.
Methods: Patients referred for hyperbaric oxygen treatment of acute carbon monoxide poisoning were asked whether headache was part of their symptom complex. When present, specific details about the nature of the headache were collected from 100 consecutive patients through use of a standardized questionnaire.
Results: Information on carbon monoxide-associated headache was collected from 34 female and 66 male patients with a mean carboxyhemoglobin level of 21.3%+/- 9.3%. The most common location for pain was frontal (66%), although more than one location was involved in 58% of patients. Nature of the pain at any time during its course was dull in 72% of patients and sharp in 36%. Headache was throbbing in 41%, continuous in 74%, and intermittent in 16% of those evaluated. Peak intensity of pain did not correlate with the carboxyhemoglobin level. Headache improved prior to hyperbaric oxygen treatment in 72%, resolving entirely in 21%. Of those with residual headache, pain improved with hyperbaric oxygen in 97%, resolving entirely in 44%.
Conclusion: The headache accompanying acute carbon monoxide poisoning is extremely variable in nature. "Classic" throbbing, diffuse headaches were rarely described by patients. There are no patterns which can be considered characteristic to aid in the diagnosis of carbon monoxide-induced headache. Similarly, no trait was identified which might allow elimination of carbon monoxide poisoning from the differential diagnosis of headache.