Carbon monoxide poisoning concerns as temperatures near record lows

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The cold outside has reached record lows, but there can be invisible dangers lurking inside the home as well as people try to escape the cold.

“I think the big thing to know about carbon monoxide is it can happen with any kind of combustion, so if you’re trying to burn something you could have a problem,” said Dr. Thomas Masters of Emergency and Hyperbaric Medicine at Hennepin Healthcare.

Dr. Masters says it’s been an active winter season for carbon monoxide poisonings.

“We’ve seen a lot of carbon monoxide poisonings, a lot of patients who had frostbite,” said Dr. Masters.

With the temperatures plummeting, he’s expecting to see more of those issues. 

“So in this cold weather, you can see it from people using propane heaters to stay warm, people who are idling their cars too long in the garage - just stuff you wouldn’t think would cause a problem,” he said.

Fortunately, Hennepin Healthcare has a rare tool to help: an emergency hyperbaric chamber. It’s the only one in the state. It can save lives, and limbs.

“We’re able to treat people with high doses of oxygen when they have carbon monoxide poisoning,” he said. “We’re also looking to whether hyperbaric oxygen can help people with frostbite issues who aren’t healing as well.”

Patients suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning are rushed to the center and are placed in the chamber for 90 minutes. Dr. Masters compares the process to scuba diving, in fact, they follow the Navy’s diving manual.

“We increase the pressure in this room and it’s like you’re going scuba diving and so gases we breathe will dissolve in our blood when we’re in increased pressure – like a bottle of soda pop,” said Dr. Masters. “So when you’re breathing extra oxygen, they get more oxygen to areas that aren’t getting oxygen, whether they’re deprived because of carbon monoxide poisoning or poor oxygen delivery because of frostbite.”

To avoid issues in the first place, Dr. Masters says it’s important to keep carbon monoxide detectors working. He says to watch for the warning signs of poisoning.

“It can be really simple symptoms, like you might have a headache and just generally not feel well, which can be hard, but if you notice your whole household isn’t feeling well and headache-y and nauseated, that’s concerning,” he said.

At Hennepin County Medical Center, officials have treated 15 frostbite cases since Thursday. Seven of those patients had to be admitted overnight because it was so bad. Officials with Health Partners says their sites have treated 34 frostbite cases since Friday.