Q & A Library
Wary of Carbon Monoxide?
Recently I was exposed to carbon monoxide due to my furnace being cracked. I had a lot of medical issues long before I installed a detector, which, by the way, saved my life. Can there be long-term effects from the exposure?
Answer (Published 9/1/2005)
Originally published 1/04/2005
Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is very dangerous. Each year an estimated 500 people in the United States die and thousands require medical treatment as a result of accidental exposure. (Another 2,000 people die after deliberately breathing it in.) Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas found in the fumes produced by cars, trucks, stoves, heating systems, gas ranges, lanterns, burning charcoal, and burning wood. If carbon monoxide from these sources builds up in an enclosed space, people and pets can be poisoned. The most common symptoms are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion; all of which can be linked to other health problems and may not be correctly diagnosed if you're unaware that you've been exposed to carbon monoxide. Symptoms can easily be mistaken for those of flu, gastroenteritis or psychiatric disorders. If you're asleep and carbon monoxide builds up in your home, you could easily die, since increasing levels of it in the blood lead to coma, seizures and respiratory failure.
You're fortunate that you installed a carbon monoxide detector that alerted you to the gas in your home. These inexpensive devices can warn of danger before symptoms develop. Once exposed, correct treatment requires aggressive use of oxygen therapy, even using hyperbaric oxygen when necessary. Recovery can be slow if treatment is not instituted promptly. In severe poisonings, long-term psychiatric and neurological problems occur in about 10 percent of survivors. Memory impairment can occur in up to 40 percent. The most common personality change is emotional instability (mood swings). Resolution of neurologic symptoms, when they occur, can take up to two years.
In addition to installing detectors, the best way to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning is by taking the following preventive measures:
For more information on protecting yourself against carbon monoxide poisoning, visit the Center for Disease Control web site at www.cdc.gov/nceh/airpollution/carbonmonoxide/cofaq.htm.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
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