Carbon Monoxide Poisoning; Where it’s Found

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when it builds up in your bloodstream. When too much carbon monoxide is in the air, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This can lead to serious tissue damage or even death.

It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by burning gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal, or other fuel. Improperly ventilated appliances and engines, particularly in a tightly sealed or enclosed space, may allow it to accumulate to a dangerous level.

Since it is an odorless gas it has caused thousands of deaths each year in North America. Breathing in it is very dangerous. It is the leading cause of poisoning death in the United States.

If you think you or someone may have been poisoned, get some fresh air and seek emergency medical care.

Carbon Monoxide Poisonous Ingredient

Carbon monoxide is a chemical produced from the incomplete burning of natural gas or other products containing carbon. This includes exhaust, faulty heaters, fires, and factory emissions.

Where Found

The following items may produce carbon monoxide:

  • Anything that burns coal, gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, or wood
  • Automobile engines
  • Charcoal grills (charcoal should never be burned indoors)
  • Indoor and portable heating systems
  • Portable propane heaters
  • Stoves (indoor and camp stoves)
  • Water heaters that use natural gas

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

This can be particularly dangerous for people who are sleeping or intoxicated. People may have irreversible brain damage or even die before anyone realizes there’s a problem.

When to see a doctor

The warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning can be subtle. But the condition is a life-threatening medical emergency. If you think you or someone you’re with may have been poisoned, breathe fresh air and seek emergency medical care.

Causes of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning is caused by inhaling combustion fumes. It has replaced the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This prevents oxygen from reaching your tissues and organs.

Various fuel-burning appliances and engines produce carbon monoxide. The amount of carbon monoxide produced by these sources usually isn’t cause for concern. But if they’re used in a closed or partially closed space — cooking with a charcoal grill indoors, for example — the carbon monoxide can build to dangerous levels.

Smoke inhalation during a fire also can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Risk factors

Exposure to it may be particularly dangerous for:

  • Unborn babies. 
    • Fetal blood cells take up carbon monoxide more readily than adult blood cells do. This makes unborn babies more susceptible from harm.
  • Children. 
    • Young children take breaths more frequently than adults do, which may make them more susceptible to poisoning.
  • Older adults. 
    • Older people who experience poisoning may be more likely to develop brain damage.
  • People who have chronic heart disease. 
    • People with a history of anemia and breathing problems also are more likely to get sick from exposure.
  • Those in whom carbon monoxide poisoning leads to unconsciousness. 
    • Loss of consciousness indicates more severe exposure.

Complications

Depending on the degree and length of exposure, it can cause:

  • Permanent brain damage
  • Damage to your heart, possibly leading to life-threatening cardiac complications
  • Fetal death or miscarriage
  • Death

Before Calling Emergency

The following information is helpful for emergency assistance:

  • The person’s age, weight, and condition (for example, is the person awake or alert?)
  • How long they may have been exposed

However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.

Prevention

Simple precautions can help prevent poisoning:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors. 
    • Put one in the hallway near each sleeping area in your house. Check the batteries every time you check your smoke detector batteries — at least twice a year.
  • Open the garage door before starting your car. 
    • Never leave your car running in your garage. Be particularly cautious if you have an attached garage.
    • Leaving your car running in a space attached to the rest of your house is never safe, even with the garage door open.
  • Use gas appliances as recommended. 
    • Never use a gas stove or oven to heat your home. Use portable gas camp stoves outdoors only.
    • Use fuel-burning space heaters only when someone is awake to monitor them and doors or windows are open to provide fresh air.
    • Don’t run a generator in an enclosed space, such as the basement or garage.

Additional Prevented Measure

  • Keep your fuel-burning appliances and engines properly vented. These include:
    • Space heaters
    • Furnaces
    • Charcoal grills
    • Cooking ranges
    • Water heaters
    • Fireplaces
    • Portable generators
    • Wood-burning stoves
    • Car and truck engines
  • If you have a fireplace, keep it in good repair. 
    • Clean your fireplace chimney and flue every year.
  • Keep vents and chimneys unblocked during remodeling. 
    • Check that they aren’t covered by tarps or debris.
  • Make repairs before returning to the site of an incident. 
    • If has occurred in your home, it’s critical to find and repair the source before you stay there again.
  • Use caution when working with solvents in a closed area.
    • Methylene chloride, a solvent commonly found in paint and varnish removers, can break down (metabolize) into carbon monoxide when inhaled.
    • Exposure to methylene chloride can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
    • When working with solvents at home, use them only outdoors or in well-ventilated areas.
    • Carefully read the instructions and follow the safety precautions on the label.

Outlook

Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause death. For those who survive, recovery is slow. How well a person does depends on the amount and length of exposure to the poisonous air. It undoubtedly can cause permanent brain damage.

If the person still has impaired mental ability after 2 weeks, the chance of a complete recovery is worse. Impaired mental ability can reappear after a person has been symptom-free for 1 to 2 weeks.

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