Richa Madaan

Richa Madaan

Understanding Long-Term Cognitive Impacts From Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

  Mar 18, 2024
Reviewed by Ayushi Jain

Ever feel a little forgetful or unfocused? Now imagine dealing with that daily as your new normal after carbon monoxide poisoning! Indeed, carbon monoxide (CO) exposure can deal some lasting blows to cognitive functioning.

There are many ways you’d find yourself dealing with CO exposure. Individuals might have been using fuel-burning appliances or equipment in poorly ventilated areas. 

Or maybe one ran a car or generator in an enclosed space. In some cases, it could be fire or smoke inhalation.

Regardless of the cause, CO intoxication increases the likelihood of troubles with memory, attention, processing speed, learning—you name it. All these can impact daily life and linger long after the initial poisoning.

This guide will take readers through some common long-term cognitive impacts so they know what they might be up against.

Difficulty With Episodic Memory

People with carbon monoxide poisoning often struggle with recalling the special moments and happenings in their lives, thanks to disrupted hippocampi. CO exposure tampers with the hippocampus so it can’t neatly package memories for later.

This can significantly affect the capacity to reminisce fondly or retell cherished stories as the details go missing. 

To cope, keep a detailed journal or photo album to help cement memories. Leaning on others’ recollections can also fill in fuzzy gaps.

Working Memory

Working memory acts like a mental scratch pad for temporarily storing information to juggle in the brain. But CO substance shrinks that usable scratch space. Trying to focus, follow multi-step directions, or tackle complex tasks can then become extra challenging.

Things that used to come easy can now slip through the cracks. Some may find it tougher to remember the last three steps of baking cookies or even lose their train of thought mid-sentence.

Do You Know?:
Studies show that patients still exhibited a 19% incidence of cognitive deficits. Whereas, some exhibit a 37% incidence of neurologic deficits.

It’s understandable if someone finds these moments frustrating. To cope, consider writing things down right away before they slip into the mind. Also, consider tackling the activities one step at a time.

In case the symptoms are severe, work with an expert cognitive therapist or neuropsychologist.

Attention Deficits

Shiny objects catching your eye and random thoughts interrupting focus? Welcome to the world of CO poisoning survivors. Their attention can waver every so often, making it tough to stay dialed in.

Once distracted, clawing back sustained attention becomes nearly impossible as intrusive thoughts muscle in. 

To work through this situation, consider minimizing distractions in the workspace and taking regular short breaks to re-center attention.

Slowed Processing Speed

Slowed Processing Speed

Slow processing speed resulting from it can make taking in information, planning responses, and reacting at the moment – seem to be happening in slow-motion. This can make all sorts of daily tasks more difficult.

As frustrating as it is, be patient and give the brain extra time to absorb and respond. Setting reminders can also help to meet deadlines.

Clouded Judgment, Rigid Thinking (Executive Function)

Its survivors often struggle with higher-level thinking skills, thanks to executive function problems. Planning, organizing tasks, handling unpredictable situations – that flexible thinking can get stiff and rigid.

Say you’re midway through a DIY project and realize you’re missing a tool. Most people improvise to problem-solve quickly. 

Line graph

The stats mentioned in the fugue above demonstrate the global age-standardized mortality rate and number of deaths due to unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, between 2000–21.

But with executive function impairments, one may stubbornly insist on sticking to Plan A, even when it stops working.

This can make adapting to changing circumstances extra difficult. 

To deal with such situations, consider writing to-do lists, following routines, and leaning on others to double-check the judgment calls or improvise as needed.

Visuospatial Skills

Carbon monoxide intoxication stacks the deck against visuospatial skills. Suddenly reading maps can seem like deciphering hieroglyphics as the brain struggles to make sense of all those symbols.

Building some structures you very easily could before begins feeling like Mission Impossible as the diagrams resemble abstract art. 

And bumping into walls or getting lost in unfamiliar places? More common than you’d think!

Life loses some clarity when people lose the ability to accurately interpret what they’re seeing. 

To deal with such situations, use maps judiciously, move slowly in unfamiliar settings, and ask for help interpreting diagrams or navigating tricky terrain.

Tip-of-the-Tongue Trips (Verbal Fluency)

You know those frustrating “tip of my tongue!” moments when you temporarily forget a word? Its survivors deal with that every so often. Their verbal fluency might take a big hit, making it tough to smoothly put thoughts into words.

Conversations can become riddled with “ums,” awkward pauses, and statements that meander in circles. 

They grasp the ideas but struggle to verbalize them. This can make it tough to contribute meaningfully.

If carbon monoxide exposure has affected this facet of life, consider carrying a small notepad to jot down keywords and return to trigger lost thoughts. 

Having patience, taking pauses, and describing ideas can also ease conversations.

Learning Difficulties

Handling new information can become overwhelmingly tough when remembering, processing speed, and focus suffer. Trying to grasp foreign concepts feels futile as everything goes in one ear and out the other. 

Fast Fact:
According to the latest survey, carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning affects 50,000 people a year in the United States. 

Between dodgy remembrance, turtle-speed processing, and squirrelly focus – acquiring new skills becomes frustratingly fruitless.

To deal with such a situation, consider leveraging multiple learning approaches – writing, audio, visual aids, hands-on practice, quiz prep – to aid weak spots like remembering, processing, or focus.

Psychological Effects

Psychological Effects

Surviving CO poisoning and feeling like the brain will never work the same again can take an emotional toll. Anxiety, depression, and major personality changes often emerge after the fact.

Dealing with these unfamiliar negative feelings day after day can wear someone down. 

One may even become a withdrawn shadow of their former peppy self, and sometimes, they may become irritable and quick to anger as frustration mounts.

Seek counseling to process the trauma, join support groups to share struggles, and practice self-care to weather negative thought patterns.

In Closing

Now, if you’ve been exposed to CO poisoning, don’t freak out just yet. Every situation is different! The cognitive issues may only last a short time for some. For others, more permanent brain roadblocks emerge.

It depends on how affected you were and how quickly treatment happened. The bottom line is, don’t hesitate to reach out to a medical pro for help if something feels off cognitively after CO poisoning.

Tracking those changes with a doctor can clue one in on how their recovery might pan out. And if certain deficits linger longer, get connected to resources to help cope with this unwelcome new normal.