The Dangers of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
No matter what your age or where you live, you could be in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Colorless, odorless, and tasteless, carbon monoxide (CO) can be extremely difficult to detect. It is produced when a fuel containing carbon (gas, wood, oil, charcoal, kerosene, or coal) is incompletely burned.
Common household appliances that use gas (such as furnaces, refrigerators, clothes dryers, ranges, and water heaters), fireplaces, charcoal grills, and wood burning stoves can all produce CO in the home when there are malfunctions and/or not enough air exchange. If a home is vented properly, carbon monoxide will most likely be safely vented to the outside air; however, in today’s “energy efficient” homes, this doesn’t always happen. These tightly sealed houses are havens to trap CO-polluted air inside year-round.
What are the symptoms?
Since you cannot see, smell, or taste carbon monoxide, it can make you sick before you even know it’s there. The symptoms of CO poisoning often mimic the flu, starting with mild symptoms and becoming deadly with more exposure.
“Parents should pay attention to sudden unusual changes in a child’s behavior, such as sudden lethargy, sleepiness, or irrational behavior. Such signs, as well as nausea, vomiting or unconsciousness, can indicate exposure to carbon monoxide,” says Dr. Betty Ann Lowe, an Arkansas pediatrician, past Medical Director of Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, and professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine. “Serious long-term effects to exposure can include chronic brain damage or death, if the brain has been deprived of oxygen over a significant period of time.”
Symptoms of CO poisoning include:
- Shortness of breath
- Fast heart rate
Why is CO so dangerous and who is most at risk?
“Carbon monoxide deprives the body’s tissues of oxygen and obviously affects children more quickly because their oxygen carrying system is smaller,” explains Dr. Lowe. “Women who are pregnant and are exposed to carbon monoxide face a personal threat from the gas, however their baby is even more susceptible to harm. A fetus has a different circulatory and oxygen carrying system, making it much more vulnerable to the carbon monoxide the mother is inhaling.”
In addition to children, pregnant women, and fetuses, the following people are most at risk of CO poisoning:
- individuals with respiratory conditions (such as asthma and emphysema)
- individuals with cardiovascular disease
- individuals with anemia (such as sickle cell anemia)
- individuals engaging in strenuous physical activity
- the elderly
Please keep in mind that CO poisoning is dangerous to everyone. Prevention is crucial and prompt medical attention is necessary to anyone suffering from CO poisoning.
How is carbon monoxide poisoning treated?
The most effective and current treatment for CO poisoning is oxygen therapy. This therapy replaces the carbon monoxide in the blood with oxygen. There are two ways this therapy can be given: either through 100-percent oxygen therapy, in which oxygen is delivered through a tight-fitting mask, or by being placed into a hyperbaric oxygen chamber where oxygen is delivered under pressure (thus removing the carbon monoxide faster).
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