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Is older people more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning?

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Now that the weather turned to freeze temperatures, we feel tempted to pump up the heat and put on a fire in the fireplace. As the winter progresses, with further storms and power outages, a generator might be needed. However, these “routine” things we do during the winter in New England bring in some deadly danger into our homes: fire risk and carbon monoxide poisoning. Both fire and carbon monoxide can be fatal. That's even more challenging considering senior care and elder safety.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas the can be lethal.  According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), it is found in fumes produced any time you burn fuel in cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, or furnaces. CO can build up indoors and poison people and animals who breathe it.

CO poisoning is responsible for up to 40,000 emergency department (ED) visits and 5000 to 6000 deaths per year in the United States, making it one of the leading causes of poisoning death. It can be particularly dangerous to the elderly, as they have more difficulty moving around or getting out of the house, in case they start feeling the symptoms of CO build up. Older adults with pre-existing conditions, such as chronic heart disease, anemia, or respiratory problems, are even more susceptible to the effects of this odorless, colorless gas.

Senior Care: Preventing CO Poisoning

Your loved ones’ house should have at least one up-to-date fire extinguisher. They should be aware of where the extinguisher is and know how to use it.  To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, ensure their safety by checking the batteries on the carbon monoxide detector and buying an updated one if you need to. The house should have at least one sensor. Many are recommended, depending on the size of the house, as it is never too much to be sure. Position at least one CO detector next to the bedroom.

In some cases, older adults have problems hearing and turn out their hearing aid during the night. That could make it impossible to listen to the alarm.

In that case, consider renting emergency alert systems with smoke detectors, offered by Home Helpers/Direct Link. These will send an alert to a monitoring station in case of smoke or carbon dioxide in high concentrations in the house. The monitoring center then will call a family member, a neighbor, and/or 911 to send help.

How to Tell the Difference between CO Poisoning and the Flu?

Speak with your loved ones about carbon monoxide and its dangers. Explain to them that if they suddenly feel headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion, they should immediately move out of the house to a location where they can breathe fresh air. Then, they should contact the fire department to check in on the house. This simple gesture could save their lives.

Even if their smoke detectors and alarms are all set up, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) alerts that they may bring a false sense of security. CO alarms do not detect low-level CO, and there have been questions about whether CO alarm standards are protective enough, especially for sensitive groups such as older adults.

Since many of these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, they may not think that CO poisoning could be the cause. Symptoms could be the result of CO poisoning when:

  • They feel better when they are away from home.

  • More than one person in the house gets sick at the same time (it usually takes several days for the flu to pass from person to person).

  • Family members who are most affected spend the most time in the home.

  • Symptoms occur or get worse shortly after turning on a fuel-burning device or running a vehicle in an attached garage.

  • Indoor pets also appear ill exhibiting symptoms such as drowsiness and lethargy (human flu viruses are not transmitted to pets).

  • Generalized aching, low-grade fever, or swollen lymph nodes (these are typical of a cold or flu).

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If you believe that your loved ones won’t be able to deal with situations like this, you should consider bringing help in. Many different types of conditions can make external help wanted.

The first is any mobility impairment. Difficulty in moving around can make it difficult for an older person to go out, in case they feel the symptoms of poisoning. If it is cold outside, they will need to bundle up before leaving, and this time could be precious for saving their lives.

Another condition that could make a situation like this challenging for older people is the existence of any dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Under these conditions, they might not understand what the alarm means. They might get confused and not be able to leave at all.

Finally, as mentioned before, hearing impairment could make it impossible to listen and react to the alarm.

In any of these circumstances, consider bringing in help from a Home Care Agency, like the one we provide with Home Helpers. The presence of a companion or home aide could save their lives in a situation like this, besides helping with activities of daily living, home chores, errands, and companionship.



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