How do I recognise carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is often more frequent during the winter period: it is also the leading cause of poisoning in industrialised countries, such as the UK. Causing some 60 deaths in England and Wales each year, it is important to know how to recognise the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. This allows us to take action as quickly as possible and limit its impact on our health. Prevention is also essential.

What are the causes of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide poisoning can affect anyone who uses wood, gas or petroleum-based heating. Stoves, water heaters and other braziers can also produce this highly toxic gas. Combustion heating is the culprit, specifically when the appliance has a ventilation or installation fault.

For poisoning to occur, carbon monoxide first has to be released. This happens during a process of incomplete combustion when the fuel in question is burned. This causes a chemical reaction, which leads to the release of this very dangerous gas.

A poorly maintained duct, an aging appliance, blocked ventilation or even improper use of heating can all be causes of carbon monoxide emissions. The gas then diffuses into the room, mixes with the air and fills the accommodation. Unlike smoke, it does not rise. This is the situation in which carbon monoxide poisoning takes place.

Anyone who is exposed to the gas is then at risk. Carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in our blood within a very short time period. This causes a variety of symptoms, and can even lead to death within an hour.

More specifically, the carbon monoxide produced during incomplete combustion is inhaled by an individual and attaches to their red blood cells (these carry oxygen in the blood). This then prevents these cells from properly transporting oxygen around the body, leading to asphyxiation with multiple consequences.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can lead to hospitalisation, or even be fatal. To avoid the health risks linked to carbon monoxide as much as possible, it’s vital to install a carbon monoxide detector. Prevention of exposure to dangerous carbon monoxide levels is better than treatment for it!

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If you have the slightest doubt about possible carbon monoxide poisoning, immediately ventilate the room, turn off your combustion devices and contact 999.

Symptoms, dangers and risks of carbon monoxide poisoning

Within the first few minutes of exposure to the gas, the person experiences the initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. The health effects become more severe as the duration of exposure increases (in other words, as carbon monoxide spreads through the blood and replaces oxygen).

The first symptoms of poisoning are headache, dizziness and nausea, as well as vomiting, blurred vision, shortness of breath or stomach pain.

Carbon monoxide poisoning, therefore, causes real discomfort, which can have serious consequences for our health. The situation can worsen as the exposure time increases.

In the most severe cases, if the person remains exposed to the gas, they risk unconsciousness and even death after about an hour. Many poisonings occur during the night, with victims becoming intoxicated in their sleep and never waking up.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is therefore a very real danger in the home, especially in winter. During the colder months, people tend to use more heating appliances and lower the levels of ventilation in their homes. Fortunately, precautions can effectively guard against the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Poisoning can cause neurological disorders in the medium term, which are thankfully often reversible. People affected may suffer from irritability or memory impairment.

How can I avoid carbon monoxide poisoning?

Luckily, cases of carbon monoxide poisoning are, in general, falling. There are multiple reasons for this:

  • Better and more reliable devices

  • More communication on the subject and of the precautions to be taken

  • The democratisation of carbon monoxide detectors

Take preventative measures against carbon monoxide poisoning (and against other toxic gases)

When poisoning has started, it is often too late to stop your health being affected, even if mildly rather than severely. It’s therefore better to take preventative steps, to avoid any release of carbon monoxide in the home as far as possible.

Several actions are effective in preventing carbon monoxide poisoning (and poisoning from other gases):

*Have heating devices and household appliances checked and maintained every year by a qualified professional

*Make sure you ventilate your home for at least ten minutes every day

*Avoid leaving your auxiliary heaters running continuously

*Place generators outside the home

*Ensure that vents, air outlets or inlets and ducts remain in good condition and aren’t blocked

*Replace aging devices with new, more reliable ones

*Know the first symptoms of poisoning and be ready to react in case of doubt

Install a carbon monoxide detector to limit the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning

Since carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless, non-irritating and therefore completely invisible gas, it’s impossible for people to notice its presence without assistance.

Once carbon monoxide is present in a room, anyone there will feel its effects rapidly. Fortunately, carbon monoxide poisoning is not inevitable. Devices such as detectors are becoming widespread, in order to prevent any risk of poisoning.

In most cases, the safest method to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning is to install a CO detector. Similar to how a smoke detector responds to high levels of CO2, a carbon monoxide detector sounds its alarm as soon as it detects a significant amount of carbon monoxide in the air.

In the UK, it’s mandatory to install a carbon monoxide detector in all homes that have fixed fuel-burning appliances. If you decide to install a detector in your house or apartment, you should ideally place a detector (or sensor) in each room where you have a heater (that uses a fuel other than electricity). This enables you to detect the gas at its source and sound an alarm before the first symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning occur.

Your detector must be mounted on a wall, at eye level, and between 1 and 3 metres from the device. Important note: this is a major difference from smoke detectors, which should be placed on the ceiling.

Prevention is better than treatment when it comes to carbon monoxide poisoning. There are several solutions to prevent poisoning from happening, so don't take any risks for your health at home!