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SALT LAKE CITY — Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that is a by-product of the combustion of organic materials. CO poisoning happens when a person breathes in too much of the chemical and not enough oxygen.
The poisoning's effects are rapid and can be deadly, but they're often hard to detect.
When CO molecules enter the bloodstream, they bind themselves with red blood cells at a rate 200 times faster than oxygen. As the CO infiltrates a person’s blood, it reduces the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and can lead to a condition known as hypoxia.
Hypoxia, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, is “a condition of the body in which the tissues are starved of oxygen.” Once a person has had a hypoxia episode, he or she will not be the same. The condition affects the brain mostly, and brain damage happens very quickly with CO poisoning.
The causes of CO poisoning include, but are not limited to:
- poorly ventilated areas
- malfunction of a gas heater
- heavy smoking or being around heavy smoking
- smoke from fires
- charcoal grills
- gas-powered tools
- paint solvent materials
Because CO poisoning is a chemical inhalation injury, its effects are different than other lung injuries due to lack of oxygen.
When a person isn’t receiving enough oxygen, his or her skin will turn a bluish color. However, when CO is playing a role in that lack of oxygen, the person’s skin will continue to look healthy and pink. This makes it hard to tell if a person is sleeping or in real trouble.
Signs and symptoms of CO poisoning result from tissue hypoxia and therefore will vary related to the degree of CO saturation of the person’s blood. He or she may have several of the symptoms at one time:
- Flu-like symptoms, fatigue
- Shortness of breath on exertion
- Impaired judgment
- Chest pain
- Abdominal pain
- Visual changes
- Memory problems
- Walking problems
Treatment for CO poisoning is very effective if implemented early. The first step is to get everyone away from the gas source. If you have severe symptoms, a hyperbaric chamber will help dissipate the gas in your blood and replace it with oxygen.
Unfortunately most cases of CO poisoning result in death or permanent brain injury due to the lack of oxygen. If you suspect CO poisoning, do not hesitate to contact your doctor or go to an emergency room. This is a true emergency, and it is better to be safe than sorry.
Suzanne Carlile, "Nurse Suzy," has been a nurse since 1982. Her main focus is critical care and nursing education. She holds a master's degree in nursing, is a Certified Emergency Nurse, and a member of NNSDO Intermountain West Chapter.