Greater awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning needed among patients and doctors

October 21, 1999

Carbon monoxide poisoning

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As the UK sees the onset of Autumn and the cooler weather that it brings, the numbers of unintentional deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning begin to rise, write Dr Ed Walker from Dewsbury District Hospital and Dr Alastair Hay from the University of Leeds in this week's BMJ. The authors explain the difficulties of diagnosing carbon monoxide poisoning and comment that the most tragic consequence of a missed diagnosis is that patients may be discharged to the very environment that is poisoning them.

Each year around fifty people in the UK die from carbon monoxide poisoning, however as many as 25,000 people may be exposed to the effects of carbon monoxide in the home, write Walker and Hay. The early symptoms of this type of poisoning are usually said to be flu like, they say, which makes diagnosis difficult, especially when more than one member of the same household exhibits similar symptoms, indicating a microbial cause. They report that "symptoms may initially be mild, often include gastrointestinal upset in children and usually are associated with the occupancy of a particular building or room" with several family members (including pets) affected.

Testing for carbon monoxide in the blood (carboxyhaemoglobin) is straightforward and will pick up exposure in its early stages, say Walker and Hay and breath meters (originally developed as smoking cessation aids) are now available- but "most of the time, no one thinks to do the test."

The authors conclude that "with a simple, non-invasive testing device the chances of such tragedies could be dramatically lessened. But to achieve this we must also see increased awareness of the problem, among patients and their doctors."

Dr Ed Walker, Staff Grade Practitioner, Accident and Emergency Department, Dewsbury District Hospital, Dewsbury

Tel: 44-966-438295


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