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Think carbon monoxide

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Gas heater use increases the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in the home

During the cooler months, we need to be aware of the increased risk of accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from domestic gas heaters. Specific causes include faulty installation, inappropriate use, inadequate maintenance, blocked flues and fires.

The signs and symptoms of CO poisoning are non-specific. Headaches, malaise, nausea and dizziness are common, and gradual cognitive deterioration and reduction in functional capacity have been reported in low-grade chronic exposure.1 Further questioning should elucidate whether the symptoms are occurring in other members of the household (including pets), and whether the patient feels better when outside the house. Failure of health professionals to recognise the symptoms and signs of CO poisoning can result in the discharge of a patient back into a potentially fatal environment. At highest risk are older people, patients with comorbidities, children, pregnant women and their unborn babies.

CO is a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas resulting from the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon fuels. It binds strongly with haemoglobin and cytochromes, preventing oxygen transport and its use in the tissues. This can result in end-organ damage.2

The diagnosis of CO poisoning is based on history and examination,…