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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Children

What is carbon monoxide poisoning in children?

Carbon monoxide poisoning is an illness that occurs from breathing in carbon monoxide (CO) gas.  It is a medical emergency and needs treatment right away.

 

What causes carbon monoxide poisoning in a child?

CO is a colorless, odorless gas made when fuel burns. Fuels include wood, gasoline, coal, natural gas, and kerosene. Breathing in carbon monoxide fumes prevents the body from using oxygen normally. This can harm the brain, heart, and other organs.

Most carbon monoxide exposure happens in the winter. This is because the most common source of CO poisoning is an unvented space heater in the home. An unvented space heater uses fuel and indoor air to create heat. It vents the gases into the room, instead of outdoors. A space heater that is not installed right or not working correctly can release carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes into the room. It can use up much of the oxygen in the room.

Most space heaters use kerosene or natural gas for fuel. Newer models have oxygen sensors. These sensors shut off the heater when the oxygen level in the room falls below a certain level. Older models don’t have this safety feature. Because of these safety problems, some states ban unvented space heaters.

Carbon monoxide can also leak from home or camping appliances that use oil, wood, gas, or coal and are not working properly, such as:

  • Stove and oven
  • Clothes dryer
  • Water heater
  • Gas log burner
  • Ceiling-mounted heating unit
  • Heating furnace
  • Barbecue grill
  • Pool or spa heater

Other sources of carbon monoxide include:

  • Wood burning fireplace
  • Clogged chimney
  • Vehicle with engine running
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Fire

 

Which children are at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning?

A child is more at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning if he or she lives in a house with any of these:

  • An appliance powered by oil, wood, gas, or coal
  • A space heater
  • A faulty fireplace and chimney

 

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning in a child?

Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. They can include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness or clumsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of consciousness or coma
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of hearing
  • Blurry vision
  • Seizures
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Respiratory failure

It may be CO poisoning if symptoms occur at home and not at school. Or it may be CO poisoning if more than 1 person in the home has these symptoms. This can lead to death.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be like other health conditions, such as the flu and food poisoning. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

 

How is carbon monoxide poisoning diagnosed in a child?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may ask about recent exposure to fuel-burning appliances. A healthcare provider often diagnoses CO poisoning based on known exposure. He or she will give your child a physical exam. The physical exam may include a test of mental status. Your child may have blood tests to check carbon monoxide and oxygen levels.

Your child may also be placed on a heart monitor. This displays the heart rhythm. An electrocardiogram (ECG) may be done to check for damage to the heart. Your child may also have an imaging test such as a CT scan or MRI. This is to check for damage to the brain.

 

How is carbon monoxide poisoning treated in a child?

If your child has signs of CO poisoning:  

  • Leave the area and take your child into fresh air right away.
  • Turn off the carbon monoxide source, if you can do so quickly and safely without putting yourself or others in danger.
  • If your child has stopped breathing, start CPR right away. Don’t stop until your child breathes on his or her own, or someone else can take over.
  • Have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, do CPR for 2 minutes and then call 911.

Oxygen therapy is the main treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning. Your child may be given oxygen through a face mask right away. In some cases, a child may be treated in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.                                         

Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.

 

What are the possible complications of carbon monoxide poisoning in a child?

A child may have long-lasting (permanent) damage to the brain or heart. This depends on the amount of CO exposure. Severe carbon monoxide poisoning can cause neurologic symptoms days or weeks later. This is known as delayed neurologic syndrome. In some cases, CO poisoning can lead to death.

 

How can I help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in my child?

You can protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning in these ways:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors in areas with appliances that burn fuel.
  • Have furnaces, water heaters, gas ovens, wood stoves, and any other fuel-burning appliances checked each year.
  • Have your fireplace cleaned and inspected each year.
  • Use fuel-burning space heaters only in well-ventilated areas.
  • Don't start up or let the engine run (idle) on gas lawn mowers, cars, trucks, or other vehicles in an enclosed area, even with the garage doors open.
  • Vent fuel-burning appliances outside when possible.
  • Don't use a charcoal grill inside your home, garage, tent, or camper.
  • Don't use portable heaters or lanterns while sleeping in enclosed areas, such as tents, campers, and other vehicles. This is especially important at high altitudes, where the risk of CO poisoning is increased.
  • Don't use a gas oven for heat.
  • When using a gas-powered generator for electricity, keep it a safe distance away from the home.

 

Call 911

If your child has symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, move to a place with fresh air right away. Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS).

 

Key points about carbon monoxide poisoning in children

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning is an illness that occurs from breathing in carbon monoxide (CO) gas. It is a medical emergency and needs treatment right away.
  • CO is a colorless, odorless gas made when fuel burns. Fuels include wood, gasoline, coal, natural gas, and kerosene. Breathing in carbon monoxide fumes prevents the body from using oxygen normally. This can harm the brain, heart, and other organs.
  • Carbon monoxide can also leak from home or camping appliances that use oil, wood, gas, or coal and are not working correctly.
  • Symptoms can include headache, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.
  • If your child has signs of CO poisoning, take your child into fresh air right away and call 911.
  • Oxygen therapy is the main treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Online Medical Reviewer: Adler, Liora, C, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2017
© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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