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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

What causes carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that can be created whenever a fuel (such as wood, gasoline, coal, natural gas, or kerosene) is burning. Breathing in carbon monoxide fumes not only prevents oxygen from being used properly by the body, but also causes harm to the central nervous system. Persons with existing health problems such as heart and lung disease are especially vulnerable, as are infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

What are some of the sources of carbon monoxide?

The majority of carbon monoxide exposures occur in the winter months and the most common source of residential CO-related poisoning is unvented supplemental heaters. An unvented supplemental heater is a type of space heater that uses indoor air for the heating process and vents the gases produced in the heating process out into the room. Thus, a space heater that is improperly installed or not functioning properly can introduce carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes into the room and use up much of the oxygen in the room.

Most supplemental heaters of this type use kerosene or natural gas for fuel. While newer models have oxygen sensors that shut off the heater when the oxygen level in the room falls below a certain level, older models do not have such safety features. Because of these safety problems, unvented space heaters have been banned in several states.

Other common sources of carbon monoxide include:

  • malfunctioning cooking appliances
  • tobacco smoke
  • clogged chimney
  • auto exhaust
  • malfunctioning water heater
  • malfunctioning oil, wood, gas or coal furnaces
  • malfunctioning gas clothes dryer
  • wood burning fireplace, decorative fireplace, gas log burner, or any unvented space heater
  • appliances in cabins or campers, barbecue grills, lack of adequate ventilation, pool/spa heaters, ceiling-mounted heating units

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

The following are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rapid heartbeat
  • seizures
  • cardiac arrest
  • loss of hearing
  • blurry vision
  • disorientation
  • loss of consciousness or coma
  • respiratory failure

Carbon monoxide poisoning mimics many common illnesses such as the flu and food poisoning. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How can you protect against carbon monoxide poisoning?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 100 people each year die unintentionally from carbon monoxide poisoning that comes from fuel-burning appliances such as space heaters, furnaces, ranges, and water heaters. Burning charcoal inside a house, garage, vehicle, or tent also is responsible for carbon monoxide-related deaths. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the cause of several thousand visits to hospital emergency rooms each year.

Important steps to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and inspected before each heating season.
  • Electrical space heaters pose less of a danger of carbon monoxide poisoning than those that burn fuels such as kerosene. However, if you use non-electrical space heaters, only do so in well-ventilated areas.
  • Do not start or leave running cars, trucks or other vehicles in an enclosed area.
  • Do not use portable heaters or lanterns while sleeping in enclosed areas such as tents, campers, and other vehicles. This is especially important at high altitudes, where the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is increased.
  • When gasoline-powered generators are used to supply electricity, care should be taken to keep the generator a safe distance away from the home.

See your physician immediately if you suspect that you or a member of your family is a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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