Physicians at Intermountain Medical Center's Hyperbaric Medicine Center Sound the Alarm on Carbon Monoxide Poisonings

MURRAY — A day after a Salt Lake family of six nearly died due to carbon monoxide poisoning, experts at the Intermountain Medical Center Hyperbaric Medicine Center are sounding the alarm. 

Dr. Lindell Weaver, medical director at Intermountain Medical Center's Hyperbaric Medicine Center and recognized national expert on carbon monoxide poisoning, says it’s not a matter of if, but when the next Utahn will be fatally overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace or other some other heating source inside their home.

That’s why Dr. Weaver and other physicians from the Hyperbaric Medicine Center are sounding the alarm to Utahns to take precautions now to protect themselves from what is called the silent killer. Carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. Because it is virtually undetectable it's dubbed the silent killer, and in the United States it is the number one cause of death by poisoning.

Dr. Weaver says it's absolutely critical for people to have their furnaces properly serviced and to install carbon monoxide detectors - a simple step that will help save lives.

"The first signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are flu-like symptoms including nausea, tiredness, and aches and pains," says Dr. Weaver. "If anyone suspects they've been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, they should leave that environment immediately and seek help."

Carbon monoxide is produced when fuel is incompletely burned by, for example, a furnace or water heater. It essentially kills by suffocation, robbing the body's red blood cells of vital oxygen molecules. More than 400 poison victims are treated in emergency rooms in Utah each year and more than 40,000 ER visits in the United States are due to carbon monoxide poisoning. More than 40 Utah carbon monoxide victims die each year.

Dr. Weaver, a nationally recognized clinician and researcher, is the principal investigator of several carbon monoxide poisoning studies at Intermountain. One groundbreaking study published in the The New England Journal of Medicine looked at long-term health effects of patients who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. Dr. Weaver and his research team found that patients who received a regiman of immediate hyperbaric oxygen had significantly less long term impairment than patients who do not.

Another study compared hyperbaric oxygen with regular oxygen treatments to see which was more effective for carbon monoxide poisoning victims. Patients in this study were treated in the hyperbaric chamber, a fully enclosed chamber that can administer regular or highly pressurized hyperbaric oxygen. Researchers found that hyperbaric oxygen treatment was helpful for selected patients with carbon monoxide poisoning.

"Hyperbaric treatment can very be beneficial for patients who have been poisoned, but many poison victims still have long-term cognitive and memory impairments," says Dr. Weaver. "Other victims suffer from mood swings, irritability, depression, and anxiety for many years after the poisoning."

How can you tell carbon monoxide poisoning from the flu?

First, if you have a carbon monoxide detector, it should go off when levels are high, says Dr. Weaver. "If you don't have a detector and the whole family develops symptoms almost simultaneously - not just a few days apart - but within a span of hours, or if symptoms improve when you leave the house and return once you're back in the house, those are all important warning signs that you may have a carbon monoxide problem," he says.

Precautionary Measures

At the beginning of every heating season home owners should have their fuel burning appliances checked by a qualified technician. Appliances deteriorate with time and can be a health risk to those who live in the home.

Besides having your appliances inspected, those using fuel-burning appliances should have their homes equipped with carbon monoxide detectors to provide added peace of mind. Appliances can break down any time of year so it is important to have a back-up system in place to keep you informed when CO levels increase. A CO detector should be placed on every floor in the home to provide the best protection. Also knowing which carbon monoxide detectors to choose and knowing how CO detectors work can help maximize security.

Health Risks

Low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning can be confused with other illness symptoms and can often go undetected. Carbon monoxide poisoning can result in long-term health problems if not treated promptly. Symptoms such as nausea, headaches and light-headedness should be checked by a physician especially when more than one person in the home is showing symptoms.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning causes flu like symptoms. Low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning can be confused with flu symptoms, food poisoning or other illnesses and can have a long term health risk if left unattended. Some of the symptoms are the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Mild nausea
  • Mild headaches

Moderate levels of CO exposure can cause death if the following symptoms persist for a long measure of time.

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness

High levels of CO can be fatal causing death within minutes.

Treatment Options

There are immediate measures you can take to help those suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Get the victim into fresh air immediately.
  • If you cannot get the people out of the house, then open all windows and doors. Any combustion appliances should be turned off.
  • Take those who were subjected to carbon monoxide to a hospital emergency room as quickly as possible. A simple blood test will be able to determine if carbon monoxide poisoning has occurred.

A day after a Salt Lake family of six nearly died due to carbon monoxide poisoning, experts at the Intermountain Medical Center Hyperbaric Medicine Center are sounding the alarm