Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Know the Common Causes of This Dangerous Illness

Odorless, colorless gas can cause serious injury or death in just a few minutes
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Know the Common Causes of This Dangerous Illness

When the temperature drops to dangerous lows outside, sometimes the greatest danger can be lurking in our own homes.

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Carbon monoxide is a deadly odorless and colorless gas produced from the burning of fuels. It can build up in indoor spaces, poisoning the people and animals who breathe it.

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when vital organs such as the brain and heart are deprived of the oxygen they need. This can happen startlingly fast because your body’s red blood cells have a stronger affinity for carbon monoxide than oxygen, and crowds out the oxygen in your bloodstream.

In addition, carbon monoxide can combine with proteins in your body and cause tissue damage. In both instances, serious injury or death can result from just a few minutes of exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide.

Common causes

Emergency physicians usually see carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of one of two main culprits, says emergency medicine specialist Baruch Fertel, MD.

One is when people warming up cars in a closed garage; the other is from unvented space heaters.

“People have a remote starter and they’ll start the car in the garage and the garage is attached to their house,” Dr. Fertel says. “Often during the winter months, we also start seeing carbon monoxide poisoning when people have space heaters that are unvented or that are burning fuel in an area that doesn’t have ventilation.”

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Hidden symptoms

Carbon monoxide poisoning is responsible for more than 20,000 visits to the emergency department and more than 400 deaths each year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The cure for carbon monoxide poisoning is to breathe in fresh air, Dr. Fertel says. Oftentimes, however, it’s difficult to know when there is a problem, and this is where the danger of this deadly gas lies. Because the symptoms of CO poisoning are often vague, people don’t realize they are becoming sick, Dr, Fertel says.

Symptoms of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning include:

At moderate levels of carbon monoxide exposure, symptoms include:

Dr. Fertel says it’s important to take note of your symptoms, especially if you have others in the house who are experiencing the same problems.

“The important thing for people to know about carbon monoxide poisoning is if you start feeling these kind of symptoms or are just feeling a little ‘off,’ it’s important to get outside into fresh air,” Dr. Fertel says.

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If you use a space heater in your home or office,  make sure it has been inspected for safety and be sure to follow the directions for use.

Always check the electric cords to make sure they are not frayed. Also, only purchase heaters that have been laboratory approved with an automatic shutoff feature in case the heater tips over.

Dr. Fertel recommends always having a carbon monoxide detector in your home. If the alarm sounds, it’s important to get fresh air into the home and call the fire department right away.

“Never assume that it is a false alarm, because it could be a matter of life or death,” Dr. Fertel says.

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