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Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: A Lifeline for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and Smoke Inhalation Victims

Updated: Mar 23

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and smoke inhalation are serious, life-threatening conditions that can result from exposure to fires, malfunctioning furnaces, or vehicle exhaust. Both conditions impair the body's ability to deliver oxygen to tissues, leading to cellular damage and potentially fatal outcomes. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) has emerged as a critical treatment modality for victims of CO poisoning and smoke inhalation, offering a beacon of hope by enhancing tissue oxygenation and promoting recovery. This article explores the mechanisms, effectiveness, and clinical evidence supporting the use of

HBOT in treating these conditions.

Understanding Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy involves breathing 100% oxygen in a pressurized chamber, typically at pressures higher than atmospheric pressure. This process significantly increases the amount of oxygen dissolved in the blood, which can then be delivered to oxygen-starved tissues, promoting healing and counteracting the effects of toxins like carbon monoxide.

HBOT in Treating Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide binds with hemoglobin in red blood cells more effectively than oxygen, forming carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) and thereby reducing the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity. HBOT can rapidly reduce the half-life of COHb, restoring the blood's ability to transport oxygen to vital organs. Moreover, HBOT helps to counteract the effects of CO-induced cellular damage and reduces the risk of delayed neurological sequelae, a serious complication characterized by cognitive and neurological impairments following acute poisoning (Weaver, 2009).

HBOT and Smoke Inhalation

Smoke inhalation victims often suffer from a combination of hypoxia (lack of oxygen), carbon monoxide poisoning, and exposure to other toxic substances. HBOT can be particularly beneficial in these cases by providing high concentrations of oxygen that displace carbon monoxide from hemoglobin while also addressing the hypoxic conditions and reducing the inflammatory response to inhaled toxins. The therapy can help prevent respiratory distress and support the healing of damaged airway and lung tissues.

Clinical Evidence and Recommendations

The clinical efficacy of HBOT for treating CO poisoning and smoke inhalation is supported by a substantial body of research. A landmark study by Weaver et al. (2002) demonstrated that patients with acute CO poisoning treated with HBOT had a significantly lower incidence of cognitive sequelae at six weeks compared with those who received normobaric oxygen. Similarly, for smoke inhalation, studies have shown that early intervention with HBOT can significantly improve patient outcomes by reducing pulmonary complications and the need for mechanical ventilation (Thom, 2010).

Despite the evidence, the use of HBOT in these contexts is subject to clinical judgment, considering the severity of poisoning, the presence of comorbid conditions, and the timing of therapy initiation. The Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) lists CO poisoning as an approved indication for HBOT, recommending its use in cases of severe poisoning, particularly when neurological symptoms are present.


Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy offers a critical, life-saving treatment option for victims of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation. By rapidly decreasing levels of carboxyhemoglobin and improving tissue oxygenation, HBOT can mitigate the acute effects of poisoning and reduce the risk of long-term neurological damage. As research continues to underscore the benefits of HBOT, it remains a vital tool in the medical community's arsenal against the effects of toxic inhalation exposures.


• Weaver, L. K. (2009). Clinical practice. Hyperbaric oxygen in carbon monoxide poisoning. New England Journal of Medicine, 360(18), 1217-1225.

• Weaver, L. K., Hopkins, R. O., Chan, K. J., Churchill, S., Elliott, C. G., Clemmer, T. P., Orme, J. F., Thomas, F. O., & Morris, A. H. (2002). Hyperbaric oxygen for acute carbon monoxide poisoning. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(14), 1057-1067.

• Thom, S. R. (2010). Hyperbaric oxygen: its mechanisms and efficacy. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 127(Suppl 1), 131S-141S.

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