Trouble in the Air: Learn the Symptoms of CO Poisioning

As winter sets in, heating the home becomes a priority. Doing so improperly, however, can lead to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

Your furnace has been running for hours, but you’re shivering inside your home. A headache came on out of nowhere about 20 minutes ago, and now you’re feeling dizzy and nauseated. You think you have the flu, but your symptoms and the malfunctioning furnace are related — they indicate you’ve fallen victim to something potentially more serious, at least in the short term.

Burning fuel produces CO, a gas that, when present in high concentrations —such as can occur in a poorly ventilated room — invades red blood cells, crowding out oxygen. CO poisoning can have tragic consequences: The condition claims more than 400 Americans’ lives each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Spotting signs

Much of CO’s danger is due to stealth and mimicry. The gas is colorless and odorless; some CO poisoning fatalities occur when individuals are asleep, oblivious to the threat in the air. Problems also arise when individuals don’t recognize CO poisoning for what it is.

“CO poisoning is a great masquerader — it shares symptoms with a number of conditions, including viral infections,” says Hoyt Frenzel, M.D., FACEP, physician on the medical staff and medical director of emergency services at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital. “The No. 1 sign of mild to moderate CO poisoning is headache; others include weakness, fatigue, dizziness and confusion. Chest pain and trouble breathing may occur in severe cases.”

In addition to physical clues, you may notice environmental indicators of CO buildup, such as less hot water, soot on vents and condensation on the inside of windows.

If you can identify the source of CO, such as a furnace, generator or stove, turn it off, go outside and seek emergency medical care. Simply breathing oxygen may be enough to resolve symptoms within a couple hours, but it’s always a good idea to let a medical professional assess you.

Prevention equals protection

A few simple precautions can help keep your family safe from CO. Arrange for a technician to service all fuel-burning appliances once a year, and if you have a chimney, get it inspected for disrepair and ventilation problems. Never use a generator or grill inside the home.

“Install a CO detector near all bedrooms,” Dr. Frenzel says. “The devices are inexpensive and quite useful in preventing CO poisoning.”

If you develop symptoms suspicious for CO poisoning, get fresh air immediately, and call 911.

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