Every year in the states alone, more than 400 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning. This statistic is overshadowed by the fact that more than 50,000 people are admitted to the emergency room to be treated for the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
If it wasn’t for the fast treatment from medical professionals, the death toll would be much higher. Carbon monoxide is both invisible and silent and can also be fatal. It is produced every time fuel is burnt. The worst incident associated with CO was the Balvano train disaster in 1944, when a freight train stalled in a tunnel in Italy, leading to 500 deaths.
The problem with this type of poisoning is that it is very hard to notice it is happening, and it can happen easily in the home. Recognizing the symptoms in yourself or others is vital to receiving treatment in time. Medical staff and students also need to understand the signs and know how to treat the poisoning swiftly.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is a gas, but unlike some other gases, it is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, which makes it deadly in confined spaces. Although it is produced in huge amounts every day, many people are unaware of where it comes from and the dangers associated with it.
A study by ResearchGate showed that more than 50% of medical students had poor knowledge of carbon monoxide, and this is matched and perhaps exceeded, by the public’s awareness.
When carbon monoxide forms a complex with hemoglobin it reduces the capacity for the red blood cells to carry oxygen. Carbon monoxide poisoning can take hold within a couple of hours, but if there are low levels of undetected CO breathed in over a period of time, this can lead to permanent long term damage.
Where can carbon monoxide come from?
Carbon monoxide is produced when fuel is burnt and can come from vehicles, engines, furnaces, heaters, stoves, charcoal grills, wood stoves, and kerosene heaters, all produce carbon monoxide. Problems arise when there is a leak of CO and/or there is poor ventilation.
Over the years, CO emissions in the states have fallen. Back at the beginning of the ’70s, there were nearly 200 million tons of carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere every year, however, last year saw a drop to 60 million tons.
Running a motor car inside a garage to warm up the engine is inadvisable. Using kerosene heaters inside a house for warmth can also lead to an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Gas and wood-burning fireplaces are sources of carbon monoxide and must be vented properly. Water heaters, or boilers, require regular checks and maintenance where necessary. Landlords are obligated to ensure that heaters are not leaking carbon monoxide.
Another area that can cause CO poisoning is from damaged car exhaust systems. If a car has been in an accident and the exhaust system is damaged it could be leaking gas into the car itself. Rusty or old exhaust systems and engines need to be checked for leaks and emissions.
What are the signs of CO poisoning?
The gas itself will not cause any irritation at first, which is one of the reasons that people should be aware of the symptoms so that when they start to show, action can be taken. There are many reasons that first aid knowledge is essential, and CO poisoning is one, especially to protect more vulnerable people such as children.
Traits of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Stomach upset
- Chest pains
Longer periods or higher levels of carbon monoxide can lead to seizures, unconsciousness, coma, and death.
If someone is exposed to carbon monoxide at levels that are hard to detect but over a longer period, it can lead to many other health problems. An extended exposure can lead to vision and hearing loss, memory problems, concentration issues, and even cause Parkinson’s disease.
How can you spot if you have a CO leak?
If you believe you have leaking carbon monoxide then you can look for some signs around the home. One of these is that you have been suffering from some of the symptoms above but they seem to disappear once you are away from your house.
Other signs you have a CO leak are:
- Solid fuel fires are burning slower than normal
- Soot around the front of gas fires
- Flames that are normally blue are now turning yellow
- Your pilot light keeps blowing out
- Soot marks and yellow or brown stains around fires and stoves
- Lack of ventilation from a chimney
- You have a build-up of smoke
- You can smell exhaust fumes
Although carbon monoxide is invisible and tasteless, there are ways to detect it. Homes can be fitted with a carbon monoxide detector, and these will warn occupants of a build-up before they start to feel unwell.
What should you do if someone is displaying symptoms?
The very first thing you should do is to move outside into an area with fresh air. Do not stay indoors even if the windows are open, you need to move into complete ventilation.
Next call 911 or your emergency number if outside the states. If you have someone who has stopped breathing then perform CPR if you know-how, and do not stop until they are breathing on their own or the emergency services have arrived.
It is also important to understand that if you have symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning not to attempt to drive. One of the symptoms of breathing in CO is falling unconscious or passing out, which could happen while driving to the hospital.
Treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning
A medical professional will need to assess the amount of carbon monoxide in the patient’s blood first. Once poisoning has been established, the patient needs to be treated immediately. If a patient is left for some time before treatment begins then they will have a higher chance of complications, some of which can be fatal.
Because carbon monoxide poisoning restricts the flow of oxygen to vital organs, the best treatment is to use pure oxygen. The patient will breathe this through an oxygen mask and this will help to clear the carbon monoxide from the blood.
A ventilator may be needed if the patient is unable to breathe on their own. Oxygen chambers can also be used. There are two main occasions when this is done, one for pregnant women and also in severe cases.
The high pressure of the oxygen chamber means the patient is treated much quicker and this is essential when treating a woman who is pregnant, or someone who has high levels of CO in their blood.
The best form of treatment is usually prevention, and a carbon monoxide detector can help prevent poisoning from happening. Proper care and maintenance of household appliances and CO-producing products will also lower the risks. However, knowledge of the symptoms and treatment is essential.
When you are thinking of how to become an emergency room doctor, learning about carbon monoxide should be on the list. The stats show that many medical students have poor knowledge of this area but with an estimated 1 million cases of carbon monoxide poisoning around the world every year, it is not something that should be skipped over.