Carbon monoxide (CO) is a non-irritant, colorless, odorless gas that has a potential of causing fatal poisoning. It is among the most common causes of accidental poisoning in North America. In Canada, approximately 1,000 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning and 250 deaths are reported each year.
These figures do not reflect the actual numbers. There are countless cases of carbon monoxide poisoning that certainly go undetected and unreported. This is because of the lack of awareness of both the general public and the medical profession about this medical emergency. Furthermore, carbon monoxide poisoning is difficult to diagnose. In fact, its signs and symptoms are so generic that they are misdiagnosed for other conditions.
Improved awareness among the public about the risks and dangers of this deadly killer is key to preventing unintentional poisoning. Alongside, healthcare professionals must be vigilant in its detection.
Causes of CO poisoning
Gas, wood, coal and oil are fuel sources that can emit carbon monoxide. There are many household appliances that use these fuel sources, such as:
- water heaters,
- central heating systems,
- gas fires, and
House appliances that do not burn fuel fully also produce carbon monoxide. Some of the common sources in the home include:
- gas appliances,
- faulty central heating systems, and
- open fires.
However, the most common cause of fatal CO poisoning are blocked chimneys and flues. In such cases, the gas is trapped within the enclosed space thus the individual inhales dangerous levels of CO without actually knowing it.
Signs and symptoms of CO poisoning
The severity of symptoms may vary depending on a number of factors that include the overall health of the individual, age, amount of CO inhaled, and presence of underlying medical conditions. Babies, children, pregnant women, and individuals with lung or heart condition are at high risk for developing CO poisoning.
An individual suffering from CO poisoning may report:
- feeling sick and dizziness
- feeling tired and confused
- nausea and vomiting
- stomach pain
- shortness of breath
- difficulty breathing
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may resemble that of flu or food poisoning, except that it does not normally cause fever. Children may report an upset stomach, alongside nausea and vomiting.
Severe cases of CO poisoning can cause fast, irregular heart rate; drowsiness; confusion; difficulty breathing; and rapid breathing. It can eventually progress to loss of consciousness and seizure.
Carbon monoxide poisoning has been linked to different neurological problems such as dementia, depression and memory loss. If not treated, CO poisoning can lead to permanent brain damage.
First aid for CO poisoning
- Move the individual away from the source of the gas. Stop using the appliance immediately.
- Monitor breathing and keep the individual warm.
- Seek medical attention or visit the emergency department. All other individuals exposed will also need to seek medical attention.
- Depending on the signs and symptoms, the individual may be admitted to the hospital.
- Be ready to provide basic life support and supplemental oxygen while waiting for help or transferring the individual to the hospital.
- Do not use the appliance again, unless it has been cleared by a qualified service agent.
Again, prevention is better than cure. It is important that you take steps to avoid accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Identify appliances that could produce CO gas and have these appliances regularly checked by qualified service agents. Better yet, invest in installing CO alarm at every room and level of the house.