Published on November 20, 2015

Firing Up the Furnace

Chances are you’ve been running your furnace for a little while, but if the forecast is correct, this winter storm that’s headed our way may have all of us reaching for the thermostat.

There’s a danger that can sometimes lie in heating our homes though, one we often forget about when we’re warm and toasty under a blanket on our couch watching it snow.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas and due to this is sometimes called the silent killer. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that carbon monoxide poisoning kills nearly 400 people a year and accounts for over 20,000 emergency room visits.

So what causes carbon monoxide to be present in your home? There are several sources carbon monoxide can come from, but in the winter we most often associate it with heating our homes. CO is produced when fuels are burned to run either your furnace, your water heater, or both. The problem arises when those aren’t vented properly and the gases get stuck inside the home. CO is also found in car exhaust and can leak into the home through an attached garage.

Now that we know how carbon monoxide gets in the home, let’s look at what happens when it gets in our bodies.

According to Beth Frandsen, Coordinator of Mary Greeley Medical Center’s Mobile Intensive Care Services, and Steve Gelder, Emergency Department Clinical Supervisor, carbon monoxide binds to the hemoglobin in our blood. This affects the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to our tissue, as well as the tissue’s ability to use the oxygen. This is why headache, dizziness, and weakness are three of the main symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. This is also why a blood test is needed to confirm that an individual does indeed have carbon monoxide poisoning, as the symptoms can often times present as the flu.

Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. High levels of carbon monoxide can cause loss of consciousness and even death. The signs and symptoms may be subtle, but the condition is a life-threatening medical emergency.

If someone is diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning, the first treatment of choice is breathing 100% oxygen through a mask. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy might be recommended for someone with high levels. With this therapy, a patient is placed in a full-body pressurized chamber where the air pressure is twice as high as normal atmospheric pressure. This speeds up the replacement of carbon monoxide with oxygen in the blood.

So we know how carbon monoxide ends up in our homes, we know what carbon monoxide poisoning looks like, what can we do to prevent it?

  • Make sure that heating equipment, chimneys, and vent pipes are in good condition. Consider having your heating system professionally inspected on an annual basis. The inspector should also check chimneys and flues for blockages, corrosion, partial and complete disconnections, and loose connections.
  • Buy a carbon monoxide detector and install it near your family’s bedrooms.
  • Burn charcoal or use outdoor gas grills only outside your house. Do not use inside your house, or in your garage.
  • Never leave your car, snow blower, lawn mower, or portable generator running in an attached garage.
  • Do not use a gas range or oven to heat your home. The oven burners will make too much carbon monoxide inside your house.
  • Do not use fuel burning equipment indoors, including inside tents, fishing or ice houses, garages or boat cabins.

As the temperatures plummet, take precautions to keep you and your family safe from carbon monoxide. Stay safe and warm!

About the Author

Stephanie MarsauStephanie is the Marketing Communications Coordinator at Mary Greeley Medical Center. A blogger for several years, Stephanie's goal is to present health information in an entertaining, but helpful way.

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