Accidental carbon monoxide poisoning presenting without a history of exposure: a case report

J Med Case Rep. 2008 Apr 22;2:118. doi: 10.1186/1752-1947-2-118.


Introduction: Carbon monoxide poisoning is easy to diagnose when there is a history of exposure. When the exposure history is absent, or delayed, the diagnosis is more difficult and relies on recognising the importance of multi-system disease. We present a case of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

Case presentation: A middle-aged man, who lived alone in his mobile home was found by friends in a confused, incontinent state. Initial signs included respiratory failure, cardiac ischaemia, hypotension, encephalopathy and a rash, whilst subsequent features included rhabdomyolysis, renal failure, amnesia, dysarthria, parkinsonism, peripheral neuropathy, supranuclear gaze palsy and cerebral haemorrhage. Despite numerous investigations including magnetic resonance cerebral imaging, lumbar puncture, skin biopsy, muscle biopsy and electroencephalogram a diagnosis remained elusive. Several weeks after admission, diagnostic breakthrough was achieved when the gradual resolution of the patient's amnesia, encephalopathy and dysarthria allowed an accurate history to be taken for the first time. The patient's last recollection was turning on his gas heating for the first time since the spring. A gas heating engineer found the patient's gas boiler to be in a dangerous state of disrepair and it was immediately decommissioned.

Conclusion: This case highlights several important issues: the bewildering myriad of clinical features of carbon monoxide poisoning, the importance of making the diagnosis even at a late stage and preventing the patient's return to a potentially fatal toxic environment, and the paramount importance of the history in the diagnostic method.