Know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning

Know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning

Headache, dizziness and unsteadiness on her feet were some of the first symptoms Physician Assistant Maia Schwartz noticed when her patient came into the emergency department at Aurora Health Care. The patient thought it might be COVID or the flu, but Schwartz wasn’t convinced. Among the regular tests, she added in a carbon monoxide level test. The results were alarming — the patient had toxic levels of carbon monoxide in her system.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is often produced when cooking or heating. It can be caused by fires or leaks in your heating system, especially for people who had their heat shut off and are heating their home through nontraditional means. Prolonged exposure to the gas can be deadly. The symptoms can be similar to a cold or the flu.

“The typical symptoms are headache, dizziness, fatigue and nausea,” says Dr. Bianca Shubert, an emergency department physician at Aurora Health Care. “Carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous because it is known as the ‘great mimicker,’ as many of these symptoms also occur with other common illnesses, such as influenza or gastroenteritis.”

One important sign to recognize is if all members of a household or people from the same work environment develop this constellation of symptoms. Pets can also be affected by an exposure, which can be a clue that further testing should be performed.

“In winter months especially, I tend to ask all my patient’s complaining of headache if others in their household are experiencing similar symptoms, and if I’m really suspicious I’ll ask about their dog or cat,” says Dr. Shubert.

The best way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is by installing carbon monoxide detectors. If you have one already, make sure it’s up to date and has fresh batteries. Early detection can help prevent more serious symptoms and keep you and your family safe, says Dr. Shubert.

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, go to the closest emergency department for evaluation. For patients like the one Schwartz saw, being able to test carbon monoxide levels and provide treatment right away can make all the difference.

“Carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in the blood and can prevent your vital organs from being fully oxygenated. Rapid recognition and treatment are key to preventing long term consequences and devastating outcomes,” says Schwartz.

Treatment includes administering concentrated oxygen and, in cases of severe toxicity, the use of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. With prompt recognition and treatment, patients can anticipate a full recovery.

Now is the perfect time to make an appointment with a primary care physician. Whether you live in Illinois or Wisconsin, it’s easy to find a doctor near you. 

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About the Author

Ben Hoekstra
Ben Hoekstra

Ben Hoekstra is a public affairs coordinator with Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. He previously worked in marketing and PR for various Milwaukee nonprofits and received his master’s degree in Corporate Communications from Marquette University. He enjoys the outdoors, cooking, and all things Milwaukee.