Cigarettes contain a multitude of harmful substances, one of which is carbon monoxide. When carbon monoxide is combined with hemoglobin, carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) is formed. Since carbon monoxide has a much higher affinity for hemoglobin than oxygen does, the carboxyhemoglobin levels are higher in those with more carbon monoxide exposure, such as smokers.
Hemoglobin is a protein molecule found in red blood cells. It transports oxygen from the lungs to body tissue as well as ridding the tissue of carbon dioxide by carrying it to the lungs to be exhaled. A hemoglobin level is one of the measurements included in a complete blood count (CBC). When carbon monoxide binds with hemoglobin to form carboxyhemoglobin, it reduces the efficacy of the hemoglobin and the capacity of the blood to transport oxygen.
Carboxyhemoglobin Blood Levels
Nonsmokers have a carboxyhemoglobin level of less than 1.5 percent. Smokers, on the other hand, have levels ranging from 3 to 15 percent. A level of 10 percent is the point at which the average person will begin to experience mild signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Dangers of Increased Carboxyhemoglobin
Increased carboxyhemoglobin blood levels caused by smoking results in a compensating increase in overall hemoglobin, which can mask conditions such as anemia. Other conditions diagnosed on the basis of hemoglobin threshold levels can be missed and go untreated as well, including nutritional deficiencies, malignancies and inflammatory conditions. Lower exercise tolerance and increased risk for heart attack during exercise is also observed in individuals with elevated levels of carboxyhemoglobin.
Reducing Carboxyhemoglobin Levels
The cessation of a smoking habit reduces smoking-related blood carboxyhemoglobin levels to near normal levels after as little as 12 hours after the last cigarette. Regular aerobic exercise such as jogging also reduces carbon monoxide in smokers, but because of the increased risk for heart attack associated with smoking, check with your physician before commencing a new exercise regime.
- US National Library of Medicine: Carboxyhemoglobin levels between jogging and non-jogging smokers; JK Kam; 1980
- Anesthesia and Analgesia: Effect of Short-term Smoking Halt on Carboxyhemoglobin Levels and Values; J . Reddy Kambam et al; 1986
- Journal of the American Medical Association: The Effect of Cigarette Smoking on Hemoglobin Levels and Anemia Screening; Dale Nordenberg, M.D., et al.; September 1990
- Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Carbon Monoxide Exposure from Cigarettes: Just one more Reason to Quit; Alexandria Haber
- Medicine Net: What is hemoglobin; Siamak Nabili, MD, MPH
- Industrial Scientific Corporation: Carboxyhemoglobin Levels
- Photo Credit Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images
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