Carbon monoxide poisoning
Paul Gawelko, D.O., is a primary care physician at the Sunrise Terrace location of Banner Arizona Medical Clinic in Peoria.
Question: My family spends a lot of time camping with a tent trailer and we usually end up running a heater throughout the night. I have a carbon monoxide alarm, but I’m still worried about carbon monoxide poisoning. What are the signs poisoning may be setting in and what should be our immediate course of action if we suspect it?
Answer: Carbon monoxide poisoning is a very serious threat that sends approximately 40,000 people to emergency rooms across the country each year. While the vast majority of carbon monoxide deaths are intentional (suicide), about 500 people in the U.S. die of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning annually. The key to survival is to recognize the symptoms and seek immediate medical attention.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can produce numerous symptoms that may differ from person to person. In general, carbon monoxide poisoning tends to stimulate a sudden onset of flu-like symptoms. Common symptoms include flushing, vomiting, racing heart, nausea, headache, dizziness, diarrhea, weakness and feeling confused. Other reported symptoms include lips turning cherry red or parts of the body turning blue from a lack of oxygen.
If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning may be setting in, it’s imperative to remove the suspected source, move to a well ventilated area and call 911. People who suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning often need a steady flow of oxygen that can only be delivered by trained emergency response and medical personnel. They also need to be evaluated by medical professionals to ensure there isn’t any hidden heart or brain damage. Generally speaking, most people who seek medical attention for carbon monoxide poisoning recover completely; however, some are left with long-term neurological and/or psychiatric impairment.
Ultimately, the key to prevention is to be aware of common culprits and to take precautions like installing a carbon monoxide alarm and ensuring adequate ventilation around possible sources. Some of the most common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning include: kerosene space heaters, propane heaters and stoves, charcoal grills, camping stoves, wood burning stoves, gas and diesel powered generators, and boats with motorized engines.
While everyone is at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, there are certain individuals whose risk may be higher due to having higher amounts of the gas already present in their bodies. For instance, smokers carry a higher carbon monoxide content, which may make them more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning than nonsmokers. Others with an increased risk include coal miners, auto mechanics and individuals who work with paint strippers and other solvents because of regular exposure to harsh gasses and fumes.
Accidental carbon monoxide poisoning is tragic. Pay attention to your surroundings, understand the threat, recognize the signs and symptoms, and call for help if you suspect it.