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Published on February 01, 2018
Whether it’s in your garage, a fish house or your home, you can fall victim to a common threat – carbon monoxide poisoning. The odorless, colorless gas causes sudden illness and can kill within minutes. You can succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning if your car is running in an enclosed garage, you’re using a generator in the fish house or you’ve got gas- or propane-powered engines in the house.
Winter is the prime time our care teams encounter patients exposed to carbon monoxide, also called CO, and that’s why it’s vital to know the signs of poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say symptoms are similar to the flu -- nausea, headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, sleepiness, weakness, confusion and chest pain. The gas prevents the body from getting oxygen and in large doses, causes loss of consciousness, brain damage and death. “Symptoms that we see most frequently in CO poisoning include an altered mental status and unexplained headache, especially if it occurs in several family members at the same time,” says Dr. Christopher Anderson, an ED physician at Essentia Health. “The potential for CO poisoning exists any time combustion occurs in an enclosed space. When in doubt, get out of the enclosed space.”
Infants and those with chronic heart and respiratory problems are particularly susceptible to CO poisoning, and people who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from CO poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms. Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning, with more than 4,000 hospitalized and 20,000 emergency department visits. From Duluth, Minnesota to Orofino, Idaho, our ED teams and Emergency Medical Services personnel have been caring for patients affected by CO poisoning.
“When treating patients with limited exposure to carbon monoxide, we give them oxygen through a face mask and they usually get better. Those who have received a higher exposure can require more intensive care, depending on the severity of their symptoms. That can include treatment in a hyperbaric chamber,” says Dr. Kelly McGrath, medical director at Clearwater Valley Hospital and Clinics in Orofino.
A heightened awareness about symptoms and clear communication among our care teams are critical to treating patients exposed to carbon monoxide. Dr. Adam Riutta, who leads Emergency Services at Essentia in northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin, says it’s critical to ask specific, directed questions to find out if a patient has been exposed to carbon monoxide. Time is of the essence if you suspect exposure, with immediate testing and treatment. That means a blood test to check carbon monoxide levels and getting the patient on 100 percent oxygen through a mask covering their nose and mouth. “Test results usually come back quickly, but it’s best to start treatment, get them on oxygen, right away,” Dr. Riutta says.
Suspect carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning?
Do’s and don’ts from the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/co/faqs.htm)