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Carbon monoxide poisoning happens when you breathe too much carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a gas produced by burning any type of fuel—gas, oil, kerosene, wood, or charcoal. What makes this gas so dangerous is that when you breathe it, it replaces the oxygen in your blood. Without oxygen, cells throughout the body die, and the organs stop working.
You can't see, smell, or taste carbon monoxide. But if you breathe too much of it, it can become deadly within minutes. So be sure you know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, what to do if you have the symptoms, and how to keep it from happening.
Carbon monoxide can come from any source that burns fuel. Common sources are cars, fireplaces, powerboats, woodstoves, kerosene space heaters, charcoal grills, and gas appliances such as water heaters, ovens, and dryers. Usually they cause no problems. Trouble comes when:
Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
As carbon monoxide builds up in your blood, symptoms get worse and may include:
If you have symptoms that you think could be caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the area right away, and call 911 or go to the emergency room. If you keep breathing the fumes, you may pass out and die.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur suddenly or over a long period of time. Breathing low levels of carbon monoxide over a long period can cause severe heart problems and brain damage. See a doctor if:
It can be hard to know if you have carbon monoxide poisoning. The same symptoms can be caused by flu or other problems. In the winter months, doctors may suspect carbon monoxide poisoning in people who complain of severe headache, nausea, or dizziness. This is especially true if other household members or coworkers have the same symptoms. Even pets in the home may get sick.
If your doctor suspects carbon monoxide poisoning, he or she can order a blood test that measures the amount of carbon monoxide in your blood. You may have other blood tests to check your overall health and to look for problems caused by carbon monoxide.
The best treatment is oxygen therapy. Breathing pure oxygen can bring the oxygen level in the blood back to normal. There are two kinds of oxygen therapy:
With quick treatment, most people recover within a few days. But long-term problems can show up later. Be sure to tell your doctor about any changes in vision, coordination, or behavior that occur in the weeks after treatment.
Many people die every year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. There are some easy steps you can take to reduce your risk. One of the most important is to see a doctor right away if you think you have symptoms.
Learning about carbon monoxide poisoning:
Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning:
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Other Works Consulted
- Olsen KR (2012). Poisoning. In SJ McPhee, MA Papadakis, eds., 2012 Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 51st ed., pp. 1518–1547. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.
- Smollin C, Olson K (2010). Carbon monoxide poisoning (acute), search date June 2010. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
- Wiegand TJ, et al. (2008). Carbon monoxide section of Management of poisoning and drug overdose. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 8, chap. 1. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||R. Steven Tharratt, MD, MPVM, FACP, FCCP - Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine, Medical Toxicology|
|Last Revised||March 1, 2012|
Last Revised: March 1, 2012
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