With temperatures expected to drop and remain cold, people will be turning on furnaces, heaters and fireplaces to stay warm. Before you do, Dr. Nick Hanania (pictured at left), pulmonologist, Ben Taub General Hospital, cautions everyone to get those devices checked for carbon monoxide leaks.
Known as the silent killer, carbon monoxide is the gas byproduct of the incomplete combustion of fuel used in cars, gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, burning charcoal or wood, gas ranges, fireplaces and heaters. The gas is colorless and odorless, but can be deadly.
“You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide, but it can cause significant health issues and possibly kill you,” says Hanania, also a professor at Baylor College of Medicine.
Carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream and robs your body of much-needed oxygen. While mild exposure can be easily treated, high or prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide can be very dangerous.
Symptoms of exposure include:
• Chest pain
High exposure could affect:
• Central nervous system
Prolonged exposure could cause:
• Memory loss
Annually, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 400 people nationwide die and 4,000 are hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning. About 20,000 people get sick enough to suffer enough exposure that they require visiting an emergency center. The most at risk are children and elderly and those with chronic problems with heart disease, anemia and respiratory ailments. The danger is that carbon monoxide is usually trapped in enclosed areas and breathed in.
The best thing to do if you suspect carbon monoxide is to get out of that environment and into the fresh air. Exposure to oxygen can clear up most symptoms. For more severe cases, medical staff can administer concentrated oxygen treatments through face masks or pressurized hyperbaric chambers.
Hanania cautions to never use gas-powered generators or charcoal grills indoors or use gas stove tops and ovens to stay warm.
“You could be creating carbon monoxide and not realize it until it’s too late,” he says.
He recommends hiring a professional to inspect the furnace and fireplace at least once a year before using them. Another recommendation is installing a carbon monoxide detector, similar to a smoke detector.
“The dangers of carbon monoxide are too great to ignore,” he stresses.
To confirm a case of carbon monoxide poisoning requires a blood test. However, Hanania suggests you take note of unexplained symptoms such as headaches, nausea, vomiting or weakness while in the house that seem to go away when you leave the house.
“If several people in your house are having similar problems, then you should consider that it could be carbon monoxide poisoning and seek immediate medical attention,” he says.
For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov/co/faqs.htm.