Do You Know How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

This colorless, odorless gas sends more than 20,000 people to the ER each year.

Do You Know How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO), is the leading cause of poison-related deaths in the United States, responsible for more than 20,000 trips to the emergency room and 400 deaths each year.

Board-Certified Hyperbaric Medicine Specialist, William B. Clem, MD of Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, Colorado shares the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, called the silent killer, and tips for avoiding exposure.

Get the 4-1-1 on CO
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas, nearly impossible to detect by smell. The poisonous fumes are produced by anything that burns—oil, charcoal, gasoline, kerosene, propane or wood.

When you breathe it in, the gas has two toxic effects: It takes the place of oxygen in your bloodstream, and even more seriously, it acts as a direct toxin within cells, interrupting the cell’s ability to use oxygen.

“The carbon monoxide attaches itself to the hemoglobin in your blood, which prevents oxygen transportation to your body’s essential organs,” Dr. Clem says.

Your body’s essential organs, like the brain and heart, need oxygen at all times to survive. At its most extreme, CO poisoning can lead to disability, permanently impaired mental ability, and even death.   

While carbon monoxide poisoning can occur at any time of year, your risks increase during the winter months—December through February—when doors and windows are typically kept closed.

“In the home environment, the most common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning are auto engines running in a closed garage, broken furnaces or the use of open heat sources, like using a grill indoors,” Dr. Clem says. Other common sources include gas ranges, stoves, fireplaces and water heaters that use natural gas.

Nausea, headache and other common symptoms
Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are easily confuse with the flu, which can makes it difficult to interpret the gravity of the illness. “The most common symptoms, those of nausea, headache, dizziness and vomiting, mimic common flu symptoms,” Dr. Clem says.

CO poisoning can also cause confusion, fatigue, irritability and muscle weakness. The level of exposure—the amount of carbon monoxide and the amount of time exposed to the gas—determines the severity of the symptoms.

High levels of carbon monoxide exposure, or exposure that lasts for a long period of time, may result in fainting, loss of consciousness, seizures, coma or even death. Infants and the elderly may be at a higher risk of CO poisoning, as are people with lung and heart disease and smokers.

Learn to treat CO poisoning
Knowing the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning is the first step to getting quick and effective treatment. If you believe someone has been exposed to the gas, immediately move the person to fresh air and contact emergency assistance.

“Oxygen, in one form or another, is the only known treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning,” Dr. Clem says, and quick treatment is important to minimizing permanent damage.

Once in the Emergency Department, oxygen may be restored through a face mask, intubation (breathing tube through the mouth) or a ventilator (breathing machine). Hyperbaric oxygen treatment, where high-pressure oxygen is administered in a special chamber, is reserved for only the most serious cases.

Symptoms should dissipate with oxygen treatment, but not everyone is in the clear after this period. Symptoms like memory and concentration problems that don’t go away after about two weeks may be permanent, and symptoms can return a week or two after they seem to stop.

About 10 to 32 percent of those recovering from CO poisoning may suffer from delayed neurological problems, including personality changes, incontinence, psychosis and Parkinsonism. Fortunately, up to 75 percent fully recover within a year.

How to prevent exposure
Keep your family safe this winter with these expert-approved tips:

  • Install a CO detector in your home, ideally near each bedroom so you’ll hear the alarm if it sounds.
  • Make sure gas-, oil- and coal-burning appliances are maintained. Have them checked by a qualified technician on a yearly basis.
  • Don’t run your car in a closed garage, even with the door open. Especially if the garage is attached to the house.
  • Use your grill outside only.
  • Never use a generator or gasoline-powered tools indoors or in the garage.
  • Ensure fuel-burning appliances are well-ventilated.
  • Never use a gas range or oven for heating.

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

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