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Carbon Monoxide, The Silent Killer

CNE Talks (Your) Health

As soon as the temperature starts to drop and frost begins to form on the window panes, our first reaction is to close the house up tight to stay warm. We just need to be sure we're not closing deadly carbon monoxide gases in the house with us.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas produced by incomplete burning of fossil fuels like natural gas or other material containing carbon (gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, coal or wood). When vented properly to the outside, it does not pose a problem. But, if the vents are blocked, improperly installed or nonexistent, CO can build up and quickly poison people and pets. In fact, carbon monoxide poisoning is one of the leading causes of poisoning deaths in the country.

"Carbon monoxide is harmful because it displaces the oxygen in the blood, depriving the heart, brain and other vital tissues of oxygen," explains Lisa Gould, MD, PhD, FACS, associate director of the Wound Recovery and Hyperbaric Medicine Center at Kent Hospital.

While large amounts of CO can cause loss of consciousness and death, it's more common for people to have low-level exposure to the gas, which is harder to recognize. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion

People who experience long-term, sub-acute exposure may also have such symptoms as chronic fatigue, emotional distress, memory deficit, difficulty working, sleep disturbances, dizziness, peripheral neuropathy, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Dr. Gould says the dangers of CO exposure extend beyond the immediate concerns for the brain and heart. In addition to displacing oxygen, it can cause a series of direct reactions with proteins that induce cell stress and inflammation. Long-term effects can include:

  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Gait and motor disturbances
  • Hearing loss
  • Dementia and psychosis, which can be permanent

We are all is at risk for CO poisoning, but the elderly, babies, fetuses and people with chronic heart disease, anemia or respiratory problems may experience symptoms sooner than young healthy adults. If you suspect CO poisoning, get all people and pets out of the house and call 911. If they cannot be moved, open all doors and windows and turn off any fuel burning appliances, including cars, generators, lanterns, gas ranges and heaters.

"Anyone who is exposed or suspects exposure should be evaluated in a hospital emergency room as quickly as possible," Dr. Gould says. "A simple blood test will show if carbon monoxide poisoning has occurred."

Treating the problem

The best antidote for CO is oxygen. Oxygen should be given by face mask immediately if the victim is breathing. The Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society recommends hyperbaric oxygen therapy for patients with serious CO poisoning to quickly reverse the effects of CO poisoning. The Kent Hospital Wound Recovery and Hyperbaric Medicine Center is available to provide hyperbaric oxygen therapy 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

"Based on the clinical and laboratory data, Kent Hospital takes an aggressive approach to treating carbon monoxide poisoning. Working in collaboration with our hospital specialists, including neonatology, pediatric and critical care providers, we are equipped to treat a wide range of patients," Dr. Gould notes. "If it is medically unsafe to treat the patient with hyperbaric oxygen, they will be treated with 100% oxygen and observed closely.

After treatment, she adds that patients should follow up with their primary care physician.

Preventing problems

The best treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is prevention. Home appliances, especially heating systems, water heaters and any other gas, oil or coal burning appliances should be serviced by a qualified technician every year. Generators should never be used inside a home, basement or garage, nor placed near windows, doors or vents.

Install carbon monoxide detectors, which are the only way to warn against this silent killer. They should be installed in a central location near the bedrooms and maintained according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Contact the Wound Recovery and Hyperbaric Medicine Center at Kent Hospital for more information 401-736-4646.

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