You can't see, smell, or touch the No. 1 cause of poisoning deaths, which will strike more people during the next few months than at any other time of the year.
Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning season is here, riding on the coattails of the 2004-2005 winter heating season. When people fire up home furnaces, stoves, and other appliances that burn fuel, CO poisoning lurks as a rare, but constant, danger.
Dangerous levels of CO can build up when furnaces are improperly maintained or used. Motor vehicles left idling in garages and charcoal grills burned in enclosed areas are year-round threats.
About 40,000 people get emergency room treatment for CO poisoning annually in the United States. More than 2,000 die.
CO is a health hazard because of what happens after people inhale the gas. It combines with hemoglobin, the pigment that makes red blood cells red. Hemoglobin delivers oxygen to cells throughout the body, and picks up loads of carbon dioxide to dump into the lungs.
With CO hogging the territory, however, red blood cells can't make those deliveries and pick ups normally.
Breathing small amounts of CO can make people feel lousy, with vague symptoms like a mild headache, slight fatigue, nausea, and shortness of breath. As CO levels rise, the symptoms get worse and family members may feel dizzy or mentally confused.
Elderly people and individuals with anemia or chronic heart and lung diseases can be especially susceptible to CO poisoning.
With symptoms similar to common problems like the flu or food poisoning, many people never suspect CO poisoning. One clue: If the symptoms occur at home or another place, disappear when you leave, and reappear when you return, it may be CO poisoning.
If you suspect CO, don't waste time. Open windows, turn off the combustion source, and leave the house. If you get medical care, mention that you suspect CO poisoning. A simple blood test can detect it, if done soon enough after exposure.
CO poisoning can be treated with inhalation of oxygen or oxygen delivered in a special high-pressure chamber. University of Toronto physicians have reported that a new treatment eliminates CO from the blood faster than others. It involves use of an oxygen mask that delivers a combination of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Prevention is the best approach. Make sure furnaces and other heating appliances are in good working order. Follow directions for using portable heaters that burn a fuel. CO detectors are available in stores and can be an excellent back up to those first-rank protective measurers.
Awareness is especially important because up to half of people who survive serious CO poisoning never fully recover. In the days and weeks afterward, they experience permanent brain damage.
University of Pennsylvania researchers have just reported evidence that it results from an autoimmune reaction in the body. They suggest that treatment of CO poisoning with immunosuppressant drugs may reduce the risk of brain damage.