Sorry guys. We've all got hectic schedules and plenty of stressors in our lives, but we're about to add one more thing to worry about to your list: Carbon monoxide poisoning. It may sound like one of these urban legends that you read about on the internet, but don't actually know anyone who has experienced it in real life — however, the truth of the matter is that carbon monoxide poisoning is not a myth.
Known as the "silent killer" because it is colorless and odorless, carbon monoxide (or CO) can leak undetected in any home — and though all humans and animals are susceptible, fetuses, infants and people with chronic heart disease, anemia, or respiratory problems are at the highest risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this potentially deadly gas can be found in fuel-burning fumes produced by cars and trucks, small engines, grills, lanterns, stoves, gas ranges, fireplaces or furnaces. When carbon monoxide builds up indoors, and when it’s inhaled by a person or animal, it quickly becomes dangerous.
According to the CDC, unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning causes about 500 deaths per year. This number may not seem as dramatic as the sky-high car crash and gun stats we see circulated on Facebook, but carbon monoxide deaths can be jarring because they are so unexpected — and so easy to prevent.
Carbon monoxide risk heightens in certain high-risk situations — for example, as the weather gets colder and we turn on our furnaces or when we leave the engine running. Understanding the risks and recognizing subtle signs can help to ensure that this preventable accident doesn’t happen to you.
The early warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be confused for feeling under the weather, which is why Dr. Daniel Rusyniak, medical director of the Indiana Poison Center at Indiana University Health, keeps his top red flags short and sweet:
If you experience one or more of these “unexplainable” symptoms, Rusyniak advises:
Dr. Nicholas Kman, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees with Rusyniak’s assessment of the carbon monoxide basics — a headache is the most common symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning that is “largely variable and nonspecific,” making it very difficult to diagnose.
“As folks get sicker (severe poisoning), we can see altered mental status, confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures and coma. People can also get heart trouble (myocardial ischemia) — loss of consciousness, vomiting and confusion,” Kman explains.
For more advanced warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, the same rules apply: Get outside as quickly as possible to escape the source of the leak and call 911 immediately. More severe symptoms should not be ignored since long-term effects of carbon monoxide exposure may not go away on their own.
Carbon monoxide poisoning may come on without warning, but there are a few common-sense practices you can use to greatly minimize your risk:
For Mark Schneider, owner of Pacific Aire, Inc. — a heating and air contractors company of in Ventura, California — an annual furnace checkup is a big sticking point. This major risk factor is one Schneider sees often in his line of work, where problems are created when furnace coils wear down and eventually crack the heat exchanger to create a carbon monoxide leak.
Schneider says, “We recommend having a licensed HVAC technician clean and inspect your furnace once a year to be sure you are not at risk. The difficulty in finding these cracks is that the coils twist and turn, and without the proper tools, a tiny crack can become a bigger problem that can go undetected by an untrained eye.”
Originally published January 2016. Updated August 2017.
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