Carbon monoxide sickens, kills silently

1/14/2019 by Dr. Denise Dupras

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Everyone is at risk for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, but especially infants, elderly and people with heart or lung disease. Each year more than 20,000 people visit emergency rooms and over 400 die from accidental CO poisoning.

 

CO is a colorless, odorless gas found in the fumes from stoves, lanterns, gas ranges and appliances, portable generators, grills, and burning wood or charcoal. The symptoms of poisoning aren't specific, but include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion and even chest pain. High levels of CO can lead to unconsciousness and death. CO is also harmful to your pets. 

 

In the winter or during power outages, the risk increases because people use alternative sources of heat indoors, including portable gas camp stoves, generators, ranges or charcoal grills. 

 

You can protect yourself and your family by ensuring that you have CO detectors — and that they work. Installing them in your home and regularly changing the batteries is a first step.

  • If you have a wood-burning fireplace, have it inspected regularly.
  • Never leave a car or any gasoline-powered engine running in an enclosed area.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers tips for preventing CO poisoning, which are available in languages from Amharic to Kurdish to Somali. 

 

If you suspect CO poisoning, get fresh air! Go outside, go to another location and open the windows. If you feel ill or think you may have CO poisoning, seek medical attention. Once you are feeling better, have your local gas utility company check any gas appliances such as ranges, furnaces, dryers or water heaters to be sure they're working correctly. 

 

For more information, check out the CO resources from the CDC or Minnesota Department of Health

 

Dr. Denise Dupras is a general internist in Employee and Community Health's Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM). She completed her MD-PhD at Mayo Medical School and her residency in Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic Rochester. Her interests include medical education and evidence-based medicine.