Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning: Symptoms, causes, and prevention

Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. It has no smell, no taste, and no sound. Neither people nor animals can tell when they are breathing it, but it can be fatal.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a by-product of combustion. Common household items, such as gas fires, oil-burning furnaces, portable generators, charcoal grills, among others, put people at risk of exposure to this poison gas.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 400 Americans die every year from accidental CO poisoning that is not caused by fires. There are more than 20,000 emergency room visits, and over 4,000 hospitalizations.

Every dwelling should have a carbon monoxide alarm.


carbon monoxide alarm
Every house should have a carbon monoxide alarm fitted.

Hemoglobin is the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to tissues all over the body, and it brings carbon dioxide (CO2) back from the tissues.

CO binds to hemoglobin over 200 times more easily than oxygen does, so if CO is present, oxygen will not be able to find space to get into the hemoglobin. This is because the space is occupied with CO.

As a result, parts of the body will be starved of oxygen, and the affected parts will die.

The human body needs oxygen, but it has no use for CO. If we breathe in CO, it provides no benefit, but it deprives the blood of oxygen.

Vitas Gerulaitis, the tennis star, died of CO poisoning in 1994. His cottage in Long Island, NY, was filled with CO because of a fault in the swimming pool heater.

A person who is exposed to CO may notice that something is wrong, but they may not know where the symptoms are coming from.

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The person may feel as if they have the flu, but without a temperature. If several people in the same building have the same symptoms, they may have CO poisoning.

If this happens, all cooking and heating appliances should be switched off, all windows opened, and the local gas safety authorities notified.

The longer an individual is exposed to CO, the more severe the symptoms will become.

Within a few hours of first being exposed, a person may experience:

loss of balance

vision problems

memory problems

eventual loss of consciousness

If the symptoms are mild, there is a very chance of a full recovery.

Other symptoms may occur later, even months after inhaling CO gas.

These include:


memory problems

coordination difficulties

Serious CO gas poisoning can cause long-term problems, including heart damage.

People with heart-related or breathing problems tend to be affected more quickly by CO gas poisoning. Pregnant women, babies, and small children are also more susceptible.

Pets, too, will react quickly to CO poisoning. If a family pet suddenly gets ill or unexpectedly dies, and the death cannot be linked to anything else, such as age or an existing condition, the owners should try to rule out CO poisoning as one of the possible causes.

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