To Your health: Winter’s silent killer

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 9:45pm

Your home: It’s your place of refuge… a zone of safety for you and your family. However, there are dangers even within the boundaries of your sanctuary. From gasses to metals, and even over-the-counter medicines, there are important precautions you should take to ensure your home is free from common dangers.

As temperatures drop, and winter takes hold, home heating becomes important. Depending on whether your home is heated by electricity or gas, you may be trying to find ways to cut costs. Whether you are using your fireplace or other heating device, you must be sure your home is properly ventilated. In the winter, carbon monoxide poisoning poses a threat. It is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. The danger occurs when those fumes accumulate in enclosed spaces without adequate ventilation. 

Why does this matter? Our body functions through the exchange of two major gases. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. When carbon monoxide enters our body, it binds more tightly to our red blood cells (RBCs) than does oxygen. So, with every breath we take, our body becomes starved of the oxygen it needs to run, as it gets replaced by carbon monoxide. Therefore, it is important to ensure proper, up to date and well-functioning heating and ventilation systems are installed in your home and checked yearly by a qualified technician. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that in 2015, 36 percent of deaths due to unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning occurred from December to February. Plunging temperatures often drive people to find creative ways to heat their home, sometimes resorting to using the kitchen oven to heat the home. Stop! Not only does this pose a serious fire hazard, but the use of the oven in this manner also increases the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning though the buildup of gas fumes.

What are some of the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning? The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are subtle and may mimic those of the flu. You may experience vague headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, or confusion. However, due to the undetectable nature of carbon monoxide, people sometimes succumb to the fumes before the danger has been recognized. 

What can you do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning? The National Safety Council recommends every household install carbon monoxide detectors near the entrance of each bedroom. Today, there are many options available to suit a variety of needs.

Many smoke detectors now also carry a carbon monoxide detector function.

Please, check the detector currently installed in your home to ensure they detect both smoke and carbon monoxide. In addition to the type of detector installed, the way in which they are powered has also evolved. From the traditional cell batteries, to the newer lithium powered batteries—whatever power source you choose, just ensure your detector is properly powered and functioning. You should test your detector, once after installation and once a month thereafter. This ensures that you and the other members of your household know what the alarm will sound like.

The danger of carbon monoxide poisoning also extends beyond the home. Do not warm up your car by letting it run idle in the garage before you enter it. Garages are often poorly ventilated due to its easy accessibility to the outside. Do not use generators inside the home, basement, or garage, where gas fumes are likely to accumulate. Do have your home appliances, chimneys, and car regularly checked for proper functioning and ventilation. Do install a back-up carbon monoxide detector in the garage if you spend time working in that space. Do check that your gas equipment carries the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters’ Laboratories.

What do you do if your carbon monoxide alarm sounds off?

When you hear the detector’s alarm ring, evacuate the home to a fresh air location outside. If you are unable to physically leave the enclosed area, open any windows to increase the ventilation of the space. Call 9-1-1 to alert them of your emergency. Stay out of the enclosed space until it has been evaluated by a professional.

Who needs to be evaluated by a physician?

Anyone who is experiencing headache, nausea, feeling ill or confused or having trouble thinking and who thinks they may have been exposed to carbon monoxide should immediately seek emergency medical care. Infants, children, the elderly, those with other medical problems and pregnant women are especially at risk.

During an evaluation, the doctor will check your vital signs, neurological results and blood carbon monoxide levels. They will treat you as needed with supplemental oxygen to help displace the CO and may transfer you to a hyperbaric oxygen center if your symptoms are severe.

How do you treat carbon monoxide poisoning?

The goal of treatment is to increase the amount of oxygen in the affected individual, to displace the carbon monoxide that has tightly bound itself to the RBCs. To achieve that, the person must be given an oxygen mask that provides pure oxygen or be transported to a center with a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. This device delivers oxygen to the body at high pressures, forcibly replacing the carbon monoxide in the RBCs.

As the chill spreads across the northeast, please follow these safety tips to ensure you and your loved ones have a safe winter season!

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Medical content edited by Mark Clark, MD, Medical Director, Block Island Medical Center.