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.
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 combustible fuel and indoor air for the heating process and vents the gases produced in the heating process out into the room (instead of to the outdoors). 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 the following:
The following are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may resemble other medical conditions or problems, including the flu or food poisoning. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
If your child or other family members have any symptoms of CO poisoning, stay calm but act quickly.
Further treatment for carbon monoxide exposure will be determined by your doctor. Emergency medical treatment may include oxygen therapy, blood tests, chest X-ray, and a heart and neurological evaluation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 100 people die unintentionally each year in the U.S. 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 is also 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:
Consult your doctor immediately if you suspect that you or a member of your family has experienced carbon monoxide poisoning.
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