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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a potentially deadly condition that results from inhaling carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, colorless gas. People can inhale the gas without knowing that they have done so. It is produced when gas, wood, charcoal, or other fuel is burned. It often accumulates when fuel-burning heating and cooking devices are faulty or not properly vented.

Inhaling carbon monoxide gas causes carbon monoxide poisoning. People can be exposed to the gas when fuel-burning appliances do not work correctly or are not properly vented to the outdoors. For instance, if a vent pipe has a hole, carbon monoxide can escape into the house. Using a barbecue grill or camp stove indoors can cause a buildup of carbon monoxide, as can running the car engine with the garage door closed.

Once the gas is inhaled, it is readily absorbed through the lungs. It binds tightly with hemoglobin, and takes the place of the oxygen that it normally carries in the red blood cells. Tissues, most importantly the brain, become starved for life-sustaining oxygen.

Risk Factors:
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
  • Exposure to carbon monoxide through improperly vented or faulty appliances
  • Age:
    • Fetuses (maternal cigarette smoking is a major source of exposure)
    • Infants
    • Older adults
  • Ethnicity: African American
  • Geography: Northern states
  • Gender: death rates higher in male
  • Blood, heart, or lung conditions

Smoking does not result in acute carbon monoxide poisoning. However, since burning tobacco produces a considerable amount of carbon monoxide, smokers are chronically exposed to high levels of the poisonous gas.

Symptoms related to carbon monoxide poisoning are usually nonspecific. They could be classified into acute or initial symptoms and chronic symptoms.

Acute Symptoms

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Cough
  • Hoarse voice

Chronic Symptoms

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Disturbed vision
  • Loss of appetite
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Memory loss
  • Reduced sex drive
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. You will be asked questions about:
  • Whether symptoms come and go
  • If anyone else in the household feels ill
  • If you use fuel-burning appliances

Tests may include:

Blood Tests Measuring:

  • Carboxyhemoglobin level–to help determine the severity of exposure and monitor treatment
  • Oxygen level
  • Electrolytes

Chest X-Ray–to help determine if pneumonia is present

Electrocardiogram–a test that records the heart's activity by measuring electrical currents in the heart muscle

Move away from the source of the carbon monoxide. Breathe fresh air outdoors. Mild symptoms usually start to resolve after getting away from the poisonous gas.

Seek medical care at the closest emergency room. Explain that you think you may have been exposed to carbon monoxide. The doctor may give you oxygen until your symptoms go away and carbon monoxide levels in your blood drop.

Other therapies may include:

Ventilator–Patients in a coma or with serious heart or nerve involvement may need a ventilator to help them breathe.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy–This involves placing the patient in a special chamber in which oxygen is under greater pressure than normal.

Avoiding exposure to carbon monoxide is the key to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning. Because the gas produces no odor or color, you will not know if it is present. The following suggestions can reduce your risk of exposure:
  • Have an expert check your fireplace chimney every year. Debris can block vents, resulting in a build-up of carbon monoxide.
  • Before the start of the heating season, have a professional check that your gas and kerosene appliances are working properly.
  • Make sure all gas and combustion appliances are vented to the outdoors, through pipes with no holes.
  • Do not use your gas stove or oven for heating your house.
  • Do not use a barbecue grill, camp stove, or unvented kerosene heater inside your house or tent.
  • Do not use generators or other gasoline-powered engines indoors.
  • Only buy and use equipment that carries the seal of the American Gas Association or the Underwriters' Laboratory.
  • Do not rely exclusively on a carbon monoxide detector. Use one only as backup, in addition to preventive measures. Follow manufacturer's directions for installation and maintenance.
  • Ask a mechanic to check your car's exhaust system every year.
  • Do not run the car in the garage, especially with the door closed. Start the car and pull out.
  • Do not leave the door from the garage to the house open when the car engine is running.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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