Carbon Monoxide Poisoning a Serious Risk During Winter Months

Protect yourself and your loved ones from potentially deadly carbon monoxide poisoning this winter. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accidental carbon monoxide poisoning results in more than 50,000 emergency room visits, 4,000 hospitalizations and 400 deaths every year, and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning increases dramatically during the winter. In fact, approximately half of all reported cases of carbon monoxide poisoning occur during the winter months, attributed to CO leaks from gas heating systems, obstructed chimneys, portable room heaters and other appliances and heating systems commonly used in cold weather. Carbon monoxide poisoning can also be more difficult to diagnose during the winter, as symptoms often mimic symptoms of the common cold and flu.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless and tasteless flammable gas that can deprive a person’s blood of oxygen and cause long-term health problems or death. The molecule in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to tissues throughout the rest of the body and carrying carbon dioxide back from the tissues is called hemoglobin. The problem with CO is that it binds to hemoglobin over 200 times more easily than oxygen does. So, if CO is breathed in, the gas will bind to the hemoglobin in red blood cells, leaving little room for oxygen. As a result, parts of the body will be deprived of the oxygen they need to function and the affected areas will begin to die.

Symptoms and Sources of CO Poisoning

People and animals can breathe in carbon monoxide without knowing it and without any warning, which is why the gas is known as a silent killer. CO occurs as a byproduct of combustion and many common household items, such as gas fireplaces, boilers, oil-burning furnaces, portable generators and gas heaters can give off carbon monoxide and put people at risk for potentially deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. CO emission happens when fuels like oil or gas don’t fully burn, which is a greater risk with appliances that are old or infrequently serviced. The risk of CO poisoning tends to be higher in the winter, when furnaces, heaters, fireplaces and other heating systems are in regular use. Low-level symptoms of CO poisoning include:

  • Headaches
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability

At higher levels, CO poisoning can cause the following symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Impaired vision
  • Loss of balance
  • Memory problems
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Loss of consciousness

Some people experience the effects of CO poisoning without realizing what is causing their symptoms and the longer a person is exposed to carbon monoxide, the more severe their symptoms will become. People with breathing problems or heart problems may be more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning than others, and so may pregnant women, small children and babies.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Complications

If you believe you have been exposed to carbon monoxide, move away from the suspected source of CO gas and seek medical attention as soon as possible. CO poisoning should be treated as a medical emergency. If you experience high-level symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, you may be hospitalized for treatment and monitoring. The long-term complications associated with CO poisoning can be severe, possibly including brain damage, heart damage, coronary heart disease and other potentially life-threatening medical problems. According to the CDC, more than 400 people die every year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

Reduce Your Risk of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The problem with carbon monoxide is the fact that you can’t see or smell the gas, which means you and your loved ones could be exposed to carbon monoxide and experience symptoms of CO poisoning before you even realize there has been a leak. To prevent a deadly CO leak, keep appliances and heating systems in good working order, have them serviced regularly by a qualified professional, and always use them safely and as intended. Clear leaves, snow or other debris from heating and dryer vents and avoid idling your vehicle in the garage. Have your chimneys and heating systems inspected periodically to prevent potentially dangerous blockages and always be sure to open the flue when using your fireplace. Additionally, experts recommend that every household install a carbon monoxide detector on each floor. Carbon monoxide detectors are designed to measure CO levels and will give off a high-pitched sound if the levels exceed a certain limit.