Dealing With the Invisible Killer: Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible odorless gas that can kill you directly or indirectly. In high concentrations, CO can kill by itself when it enters the bloodstream and chokes off the oxygen to the heart and brain. However, even a small amount that wouldn't ordinarily be fatal can make you so drowsy that you fall asleep. Then another accident you would normally avoid if awake, perhaps while driving a car, could occur.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide
A typical source of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide is a car running in an enclosed garage, perhaps to "warm up" the engine on a cold morning. In fact, just about every type of fuel produces CO when it burns or when it is not properly mixed with oxygen: gasoline, natural gas, charcoal, wood, propane, kerosene and diesel fuel. Vehicles in need of a tune-up produce more CO than others, but even a new factory-tuned vehicle can produce dangerous levels of CO if used in an enclosed area. A dirty gas range that burns orange instead of blue is releasing CO into the air.
The most common source of dangerous CO levels in homes is an improperly maintained furnace. People overinsulate their homes to the point that the oxygen supply to the furnace is choked off. Fuel can't burn efficiently, so CO is produced. Moisture on windows and walls is a common sign of excessive CO indoors. Likewise, burning charcoal inside a home, a camper, a garage, a tent or any enclosed area produces dangerous levels of CO.
"A good investment in your family's safety is a carbon monoxide monitors, similar to a smoke detector," says Robert Montgomery, Hospital Safety Officer and director of Facilities at Lowell General. "The units can be purchased at many hardware or department stores, and typically cost between $30 to $90, depending on the model and its features." They should be installed according to the manufacturer's specifications. Among the recommended places they can be installed are: the furnace, kitchen, and sleeping areas.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
You can detect carbon monoxide only by the symptoms it causes. "Suspect carbon monoxide if you get dizzy or drowsy, develop a headache or feel nauseous with no other explanation," says Wayne Pasanen, M.D., chief of Emergency Medicine. "Your vision may also get blurry and your reflexes may slow down. Some people also report a feeling of tightness across their foreheads."
In fact, CO poisoning is often confused with the flu because the early symptoms are nearly identical. People go to bed with these symptoms, thinking they'll feel better in the morning, and they never wake up. "About the only distinguishing symptom of the flu is a fever," explains Dr. Pasanen. "If you have these symptoms with no fever, suspect CO poisoning. Another test is to see if you feel better after leaving the house and being outdoors for a few minutes." If you do feel better, suspect a dangerous CO concentration in the house.

Treating a Victim of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
"Get possible victims of CO poisoning into the open air or a well-ventilated area as soon as possible," says Dr. Pasanen. "Conscious victims may be uncooperative, confused or dazed. If the victim is not breathing, administer rescue breathing." Once the victim starts breathing, turn the person over onto his or her stomach, keeping the head turned to allow a free flow of air. In the meantime, have someone dial 9-1-1 for your local emergency medical service.


Lowell General Hospital, 295 Varnum Avenue, Lowell, Massachusetts 01854, Main Telephone: (978) 937-6000
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