Beware the dangers of carbon monoxide

Editor’s Note

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning can be a silent killer. Because it has no color or smell, the gas is hard to detect without the right equipment, and each year it is blamed for the deaths of more than 400 people in the United States. Tens of thousands of people in the U.S. are sent to the emergency room every year following exposure to high levels of CO, and more than 4,000 of those are hospitalized, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports.

The gas can be found in the fumes of burning lanterns, gas stoves and poorly maintained furnaces. It can also be produced by wood or charcoal fires and by gasoline-powered engines, such as automobiles, generators and power washers. Using alternative sources of heat and power in a home during a blackout or storm emergency can lead to the risk of carbon monoxide building up in the home and CO poisoning.

According to the CDC, carbon monoxide is picked up faster than oxygen by the body’s red blood cells. So, each time a person inhales CO, their body replaces the oxygen in their blood with the carbon monoxide. In high concentrations, CO poisoning can kill a person in less than five minutes. Lower concentrations will take longer to have an effect.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often similar to symptoms of the flu, including dizziness, confusion, headaches, nausea and vomiting, chest pain and muscle weakness. These symptoms are more apparent when CO levels in the blood reach 70 parts per million and higher. However, those who are sleeping or have been drinking alcohol can be killed by the gas before symptoms begin to show.

Anyone who suspects they may be experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning should go outside right away and call 911. They should wait for help to arrive and should not try to drive themselves to the emergency room, because they could lose consciousness while driving. Many local fire departments will inspect homes for carbon monoxide.

Treating suspected CO poisoning quickly is important because minor cases of carbon monoxide poisoning can still lead to major health problems, such as damage to the brain, heart or other organs. Exposure to low levels of the gas over long periods of time can cause problems with vision, sleep, concentration or memory.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is usually treated by having the exposed person breathe pure oxygen, either through a mask or, in some cases, in a hyperbaric chamber, where the air pressure is kept at twice its normal rate. Treatment continues until oxygen in the blood returns to normal levels.

One of the simplest ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is to keep a working CO detector in the home and to replace the batteries every six months. Other precautions include keeping furnaces in good working order and never heating a home using a gas stove. Camping stoves, lanterns and charcoal grills should never be used in the home or inside a tent or camper.

Gasoline-powered generators and engines should not be kept running in a garage or basement, even if the doors and windows are left open, and vehicle motors should not be left to run in the garage.

If a generator or similar equipment has been installed indoors by a professional and is properly vented, it should be kept unblocked and free of debris. This is particularly important during high winds, when flying debris can clog vents. Gasoline-powered engines, generators or pressure washers being used outside should be placed at least 20 feet or farther from open windows, doors and exhaust vents leading to an enclosed area.

Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.


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