With frigid temperatures being the norm so far this year and no immediate change in sight, Kent Hospital is offering tips to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning by making sure any and all heating systems are in proper working orders and that carbon monoxide (CO) detectors are installed.
Kent Hospital’s Wound Recovery and Hyperbaric Medicine Center, the state’s largest hyperbaric medicine facility and the only hospital with 24-hour emergency hyperbaric oxygen therapy in the region, is providing a few steps to prevent tragic CO poisonings in homes. According to Jim Beardsworth, spokesperson for Kent Hospital, there have been five cases of CO poisoning so far this year, all stemming from a large house fire in Providence last week; all patients were discharged with positive outcomes. While the number of cases so far this year is small, Beardsworth pointed out it is still early in the winter and homeowners should remain vigilant when it comes to prevention.
“Carbon monoxide odor is very hazardous to your health, can kill quickly and can be very hard to recognize,” says Lisa Gould, MD, assistant medical director of Kent’s Wound Recovery and Hyperbaric Medicine Center and a member of Affinity Physicians. “Carbon monoxide poisoning can ultimately kill you if the exposure levels are high enough or you are exposed to low levels over a long time. Paying proper attention to your home heating equipment, installing and maintaining a carbon monoxide detector and knowing the signs of sickness are the keys to preventing a tragedy in your home.”
CO is a colorless, odorless gas produced by incomplete burning of fossil fuels including oil, gas, wood, propane and coal. Normally, CO gas is vented safely to the outdoors; however, when vents become blocked by animal nests, improperly installed vent pipes or other means, CO can back up into living spaces and quickly poison the people and pets living there.
CO poisoning can be hard to recognize; low-level exposure may cause no more than flu-like symptoms while toxic levels build up. If flu-like symptoms quickly improve after leaving the home, suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, seek medical attention and get the house checked right away. Fire departments carry the equipment to check levels when poisoning is reported. Higher exposure levels can cause death (often within minutes) or permanent brain and heart damage. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, nausea, headaches, dizziness and light-headedness.
In the event of CO detection in a home, get everyone, including pets, out of the house and into fresh air immediately. Then call 911. If you can’t get everyone out, open all doors and windows and turn off any fuel-burning appliances
Take anyone exposed to CO to a hospital emergency room as quickly as possible. A simple blood test will show if carbon monoxide poisoning has occurred and must be dealt with right away. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy available at Kent Hospital will quickly dissipate the CO poison, which can save lives and reduce long-term effects of the poison.
CO poisoning can kill quickly, however, survivors may experience headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, joint pain, chronic fatigue, dizziness, numbness, tingling or vertigo. They may also experience attention problems, short-term memory problems, irritability, anxiety and sleep disturbance.
Blurry or double vision, buzzing in the ears, decreased coordination and speaking, and eating and swallowing disorders are also possible. Some individuals may even experience seizures, balance problems and tremors.
While hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help some of those exposed to CO poisoning, the best approach remains prevention. To prevent CO poisoning in the home:
• Have heating systems and chimneys checked each year before the heating season begins
• Install carbon monoxide detectors in the home, and test them monthly. Also make sure to replace the detector as recommended by the manufacturer.
Kent recommends CO detectors that will also alarm for low levels of CO since low levels over a prolonged period of time can also have damaging effects. Detectors that provide alarm for only high-levels of poison will probably prevent death from CO poisoning but will not alert you to low-level poisoning, which can cause permanent physical and neurological damage to family members over time.