It's winter. John has been feeling "under the weather" all week. He appears to be fine at work, but at home he experiences severe headaches and weakness. He notices that other household members are also ill and his young children are most severely affected. Even the family pet does not seem to feel well. The medication he purchased for the family to relieve their flu-like symptoms did not seem to be working. What could be causing the family's illness?
The source of the family's illness is a kerosene heater which has not been working properly. Malfunctioning gas, oil, and kerosene heaters can release carbon monoxide gas (CO), which presents a serious health threat. CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and non-irritating gas. These properties make CO especially dangerous, because it cannot be detected without special testing of the air quality.
When inhaled, CO reduces the amount of oxygen the blood can carry and the amount of oxygen delivered to all vital organs. The organs at greatest risk of injury are those with the highest requirements for oxygen — the heart and brain. Symptoms of a mild exposure to CO include headache, shortness of breath during mild exertion and fatigue. Continued exposure to CO may result in nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances and difficulty in concentrating. Prolonged exposure and lack of medical treatment may lead to serious and long-term effects and may even be life-threatening. The very young and the very old are most sensitive to the effects of CO.
Some symptoms of CO poisoning, such as, headache, dizziness, nausea and fatigue, can be confused with the common flu. However, flu is passed from one family member to another, and usually does not affect everyone in the family at the same time. Symptoms of the flu do not improve after leaving the house; and are usually relieved with proper medication. CO poisoning, on the other hand, will simultaneously produce symptoms in the entire family, including the family pets. Symptoms may improve upon leaving the area of exposure; and are not relieved with medication.
John and his family should immediately go to an emergency room and not return home until the malfunctioning heater has been fixed or replaced. The gas company, oil company or local health authority provides help in identifying and removing sources of CO contamination.
Other sources of CO poisoning include house fires and, occasionally, paint strippers containing methylene chloride.
Call our 24-hour toll-free emergency hotline