Silent Killer Rises As Temperatures Drop

After a warm December, it appears Michigan weather is returning to its frigid norm. And as temperatures drop, medical experts expect cases of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning to rise.

CO is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that results from the combustion of fuel. People die every year when they improperly use gas generators, charcoal grills, and fuel-burning camping heaters and stoves inside their homes or in other enclosed or partially-enclosed spaces. They also die when furnaces that have not been regularly inspected by professionals leak CO.

Figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that more than 15,000 people are treated each year in emergency departments for CO exposure. Nearly 500 people die annually from CO poisoning.

“It’s surprising how dangerous this gas is and how easily it can fill a house,” says Allen Bragdon, MD, board-certified physician with Emergency Care Specialists and medical director of emergency services at Spectrum Health United Memorial United Campus. “People must be careful and follow proper guidelines when burning any fuel indoors, including ovens.”
Bragdon stresses that it’s important to know the symptoms of CO poisoning. At moderate levels, people may have severe headaches, become dizzy, mentally confused, nauseated or faint. CO can be deadly if these levels persist for a long enough time. Low levels can cause shortness of breath, mild nausea and mild headaches, and may have longer term effects on your health. Since many of these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, food poisoning or other illnesses, you may not suspect CO poisoning.

Bragdon urges people to review the following CDC tips every year:

  • Do have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Do install a battery-operated CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. If the detector sounds leave your home immediately and call 911.
  • Do seek prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseous.
  • Don’t use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement or garage, or near a window.
  • Don’t run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open.
  • Don’t burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn’t vented.
  • Don’t heat your house with a gas oven.

CO poisoning is a persistent public health problem. If CO poisoning is suspected, it is important to seek treatment at the nearest emergency room. Spectrum Health United Memorial is linked to Spectrum Health, one of the few hospitals in Michigan that has the equipment and staff to treat CO cases using hyperbaric chambers. Spectrum Health receives cases throughout the state.

“January and February are prime months for furnace use and weather-related power outages that cause people to seek alternative heat sources,” said Richard Hodgson, M.D., a hyperbaric medicine specialist and expert in CO poisoning at Spectrum Health Butterworth Campus. “People tragically die every year from an invisible killer while trying to keep warm. Prevention and knowledge are critical to keeping families safe.”

“We’ve averaged about 84 CO cases a year for the past several years at Spectrum Health,” said Hodgson.’ “Over a quarter of these CO patients required treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, which forces oxygen into the blood and tissues to improve recovery. Most people don’t realize how easy it is to be overcome by CO.”

Spectrum Health United Memorial is committed to providing excellent personal care and services through state-of-the-art technology and qualified, caring staff at the Kelsey Campus in Lakeview and the United Campus in Greenville. Spectrum Health United Memorial provides local access to quality care through the region’s largest health care system.