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How does Carbon Monoxide affect the body?

Carbon monoxide (CO) prevents the blood system from effectively carrying oxygen around the body, specifically to vital organs such as the heart and brain. High doses of CO, therefore, can cause death from asphyxiation or lack of oxygen to the brain.

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Diagnosing carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult as it can simulate many other conditions. According to statistics from the Department of Health, the most common indication of CO poisoning is a headache (90% of patients), nausea and vomiting (50%), vertigo (50%), confusion/changes in consciousness (30%), and weakness (20%).

How does CO poisoning affect children compared to adults?

Unborn babies are at the highest risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, because foetal haemoglobin mixes more readily with CO than adult haemoglobin; therefore, the baby's carbon monoxide levels become higher than the mother's. Babies and children whose organs are still maturing are at risk of permanent organ damage. Furthermore, young children and infants breathe faster than adults and have a higher metabolic rate, so they inhale up to twice as much air as adults, particularly when sleeping, heightening their exposure to carbon monoxide.

What is the effect of chronic exposure to carbon monoxide?

Chronic exposure to carbon monoxide can have extremely serious long-term effects, depending on the extent of poisoning. The section of the brain known as the hippocampus is responsible for the formation of new memories and is particularly susceptible to damage. Up to 40% of people who have suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning experience problems such as amnesia, headaches, memory loss, personality and behavioural changes, loss of bladder and muscle control, and impaired vision and coordination. These effects do not always present themselves immediately and can occur several weeks or more after exposure. Whilst the majority of people suffering from long-term effects of carbon monoxide poisoning recover with time, some people suffer permanent effects, particularly when it comes to organ and brain damage.

Are very low concentrations of carbon monoxide bad for you?

If you are exposed to carbon monoxide over a long period of time, you can still be poisoned, even if the level of concentration is very low. Lesser concentrations of 20 or 30 PPM (parts per million) can still be harmful if you are exposed for several hours. It is not known whether low levels of exposure can cause permanent brain damage, however, they are likely to cause persistent headaches, memory loss, depression, light-headedness, nausea and vomiting.

How Does Carbon Monoxide Affect The Respiratory System?

The respiratory system struggles to distribute air around the body because carbon monoxide deprives the blood cells of oxygen. This results in shortness of breath, particularly when undertaking strenuous activities. Every-day physical and sporting activities will take more effort and leave you feeling more exhausted than usual. These effects can worsen over time as your body's power to obtain oxygen becomes increasingly compromised.

Both your heart and lungs are put under pressure as the levels of carbon monoxide increase in the body tissues. The heart will try harder to pump what it wrongly perceives to be oxygenated blood from your lungs to the rest of your body. As a result, the airways begin to swell causing even less air to enter the lungs. With long-term exposure, the lung tissue is eventually destroyed, resulting in cardiovascular problems and lung disease.

How Does Carbon Monoxide Affect The Nervous System?

Carbon monoxide can severely affect the central nervous system and people with cardiovascular disease. Carbon monoxide leaves the brain struggling for sufficient levels of oxygen and this in turn affects the heart, brain and central nervous system. As well as symptoms such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, memory loss and disorientation, increasing levels of CO in the body go on to cause lack of balance, heart problems, cerebral edemas, comas, convulsions and even death. Victims may experience rapid and irregular heartbeats, low blood pressure and arrhythmias of the heart. Cerebral edemas caused by carbon monoxide poisoning are particularly dangerous as they cause the brain cells to be crushed, affecting the whole nervous system.

How is Carbon Monoxide poisoning treated?

The goal of treating CO poisoning is to remove the carbon monoxide from the haemoglobin in the blood as quickly as possible to return to body's oxygen levels to normal.

The first step in treating carbon monoxide poisoning is to remove the patient plus any friends or relatives from the source of CO.

Doctors can then check for suspected carbon monoxide poisoning using a special test which involves measuring the levels of CO via either a blood or breath sample. In serious cases, 100% pure oxygen is then administered via a tightly fitting face mask or if the patient is unable to breathe for themselves, via a breathing machine. In some cases, the patient is placed in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber which uses oxygen under pressure to remove the CO more quickly.

General Statistics and Data on Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

According to the Department of Health, more than 50 people are killed each year in England and Wales due to accidental exposure to carbon monoxide. Over 200 non-fatal poisonings require hospital admission. In November 2011, a letter from the Interim Chief Medical Officer & Chief Nursing Officer voiced concern over the growing number of non-fatal poisonings of people admitted to A&E who do not require hospital admission. Little is known about the potential long-term chronic health problems that can occur in these situations.

Whilst there are no figures published that detail the cost to the NHS of treating patients with carbon monoxide poisoning, there is data pertaining to the implications of smoking whilst pregnant. It costs the NHS between £20 million and £87.5 million each year to treat mothers and babies under 1 year old with problems caused by smoking in pregnancy. Each cigarette contains 10-20 times more CO than nicotine. Exposure to regular CO means that smokers have up to 20% less oxygen in their blood than that of non-smokers.