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Carbon Monoxide is a Silent Killer

Carbon Monoxide is a Silent Killer

When the temperatures drop we close our windows, stay indoors, and crank up our furnaces, all of which put us at greater risk for a silent killer, carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, odorless gas that is a by-product when carbon fuel burns with insufficient air. The incomplete combustion of fuel oil, propane, and wood all produce carbon monoxide.

What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

In typical cases of mild CO poisoning, people experience flu-like symptoms including headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. It is not uncommon to see entire families become sick at the same time. When the source of the illness is not identified and people remain in the environment, their symptoms become progressively worse. Moderate exposure to CO can result in long-term neurologic problems, and in severe cases, people suffer seizures, heart irregularities, coma, and death.

How can I reduce the risk of CO poisoning?

Anyone who heats his or her home with fuel, as opposed to electricity, is at risk for CO poisoning. One of the best deterrents is to have your furnace and chimney cleaned and serviced annually. Installing a CO monitor is also a very smart idea: you can often find a smoke detector and a CO monitor all in one device.

If your bedroom is located over the garage, you are at special risk. During the winter people often warm up their cars before climbing in, which is a very dangerous practice if there are people sleeping in the room overhead. Also, if you are working on your car in the winter in a closed garage, be sure to channel the exhaust outside. If the air you are breathing contains as little as one-tenth of one percent of CO, it has the potential to kill you.

Who is at the greatest risk?

Newborns and babies in utero run the greatest risk of neurologic damage and death from CO poisoning. CO binds with the blood's hemoglobin, which is responsible for carrying oxygen through the body. When CO, rather than oxygen, binds to hemoglobin, the body and brain become oxygen deprived. Fetuses and newborns are especially vulnerable because they have what is known as "fetal hemoglobin," which binds CO even more readily than adult hemoglobin. This means that even if an expectant mother isn't greatly effected by exposure to CO, it can harm her unborn baby.

If someone is unconscious from CO gas, what should I do?

If you discover someone who is unconscious, and you suspect CO poisoning, get the person out of the environment immediately. Remove them as quickly as possible so you don't put yourself at risk. Seek immediate treatment in the emergency department. And notify the fire department so they can check on the levels of CO and identify its source.

People suffering from CO poisoning are thoroughly evaluated and treated with 100 percent oxygen for several hours to reduce the level of gas in the blood. In cases of severe poisoning, hyperbaric oxygenation may be necessary to hasten the process.

In summary

Carbon monoxide is dangerous because we can't see it, smell it, or taste it. Be cautious and have a high degree of suspicion if you heat your house with fuel. And if you are wondering what to get your loved ones for Christmas, there's no better gift than a carbon monoxide monitor. It could save their lives.

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