As temperatures fall and people turn their focus to staying warm through the winter, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning increases. On average, more than 50,000 people visit the emergency room nationwide each year, and 400 die from carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be very difficult to detect, so it is essential to take preventative measures and know the signs of poisoning.
Where does carbon monoxide come from?
Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that is often called the “silent killer.” It is odorless and colorless and can be emitted from everyday items. Anything that uses combustion fumes emits carbon monoxide, such as vehicles, small gasoline engines, burning charcoal or wood, stoves, some water heaters and heating systems. The gas is a byproduct of the combustion that must be safely vented.
How serious is carbon monoxide poisoning?
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal very quickly. When carbon monoxide is inhaled, the gas binds to hemoglobin in red blood cells and prevents the cells from carrying oxygen. The severity of the poisoning increases with higher exposure to the gas. As the cells are filled with more carbon monoxide, the poisoning can quickly become fatal.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can mimic those of everyday illnesses. Symptoms include a headache, nausea, dizziness and chest pain. Another sign is confusion, which can make it difficult for a person to realize they have been affected. Carbon monoxide poisoning can seem like the flu. If the whole family has flu symptoms but no fever, they may have been exposed to carbon monoxide. Another sign of carbon monoxide poisoning is if a person starts feeling better when they go outside or to an area away from the gas.
Who is at risk for poisoning?
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Everybody is at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning, though some groups may be affected more severely. Infants, the elderly, and people with chronic heart disease, anemia, or trouble breathing all have an increased risk of getting sick from carbon monoxide.
What should be done if a person is exposed?
If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, the person should immediately go outdoors for fresh air and stay away from the source until the gas leak has been fixed. Carbon monoxide can quickly incapacitate a person, so anyone affected by the gas should communicate with others that they need help. Carbon monoxide poisoning requires emergency medical attention. Doctors can administer oxygen to a patient until the levels of carbon monoxide in their blood return to safe levels. People with more severe exposure can be treated in a hyperbaric chamber, where they receive oxygen under higher pressure.
How can carbon monoxide poisoning be prevented?
Every home, recreational vehicle and anywhere else that people live and sleep should have a carbon monoxide detector. However, people should not rely on the sensors alone. Preventative measures are critical to avoid poisoning.
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“It’s common for seniors living alone to use a portable space heater or rely on a wood burning stove as a primary heat source,” says Rob Stevenson, director of maintenance at Pointe Meadows Health & Rehabilitation Center. “But, these items, along with gas heaters, an old furnace, or a gas oven present carbon monoxide hazards.” When family members are checking on a loved one, be sure to check the condition of these items and install a CO alarm as an added precaution.
Adequate ventilation is key when using anything that produces the gas. Cars and other engines should not be left running inside the garage or home, especially with doors closed. Appliances should be kept in working order and inspected regularly. Do not use gas ranges or ovens to heat a house, and never use a camping stove or burn charcoal indoors. Generators should always be used outdoors and at least 20 feet from a window, door or vent.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause permanent injuries or death and should be taken very seriously. It is vital that preventative measures are taken to keep carbon monoxide from building up, and to have detectors to help alert people to danger. With appropriate preventative measures and immediate treatment, lives can be saved.
A version of this article was originally published by the Daily Herald.