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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

What causes carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that can be created whenever a fuel (such as wood, gasoline, coal, natural gas, or kerosene) is burning. Breathing in carbon monoxide fumes not only prevents oxygen from being used properly by the body, but also causes harm to the central nervous system. People with existing health problems, such as heart and lung disease, are especially vulnerable, as are infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

What are some of the sources of carbon monoxide?

The majority of carbon monoxide exposures occur in the winter months and the most common source of residential CO-related poisoning is unvented supplemental heaters. An unvented supplemental heater is a type of space heater that uses combustible fuel and indoor air for the heating process and vents the gases produced in the heating process out into the room (instead of to the outdoors). Thus, a space heater that is improperly installed or not functioning properly can introduce carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes into the room and use up much of the oxygen in the room.

Most supplemental heaters of this type use kerosene or natural gas for fuel. While newer models have oxygen sensors that shut off the heater when the oxygen level in the room falls below a certain level, older models do not have such safety features. Because of these safety problems, unvented space heaters have been banned in several states.

Other common sources of carbon monoxide include the following:

  • Malfunctioning cooking appliances

  • Tobacco smoke

  • Clogged chimney

  • Auto exhaust or idling vehicles

  • Malfunctioning water heater

  • Malfunctioning oil, wood, gas, or coal furnaces

  • Malfunctioning gas clothes dryer

  • Wood burning fireplace, gas log burner, or any unvented space heater

  • Appliances in cabins or campers, barbecue grills, lack of adequate ventilation, pool or spa heaters, or ceiling-mounted heating units

  • Fires

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

The following are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Weakness

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Seizures

  • Chest pain

  • Cardiac arrest

  • Loss of hearing

  • Blurry vision

  • Disorientation

  • Loss of consciousness or coma

  • Respiratory failure

  • Death

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may resemble other medical conditions or problems, including the flu or food poisoning. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

First-aid for carbon monoxide poisoning

If your child or other family members have any symptoms of CO poisoning, stay calm but act quickly:

  • Leave the area and get fresh air immediately. Turn off the carbon monoxide source, but only if you can do so safely without endangering yourself or others.

  • Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS).

  • If someone has stopped breathing, get him or her fresh air and immediately start CPR and do not stop until he or she breathes on his or her own, or someone else can take over. If you can, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, perform CPR for one minute and then call 911.

Further treatment for carbon monoxide exposure will be determined by your doctor. Emergency medical treatment may include oxygen therapy, blood tests, chest X-ray, and a heart and neurological evaluation.

How can you protect against carbon monoxide poisoning?

According to the CDC, more than 400 people die unintentionally each year in the U.S. from carbon monoxide poisoning that comes from fuel-burning appliances, such as space heaters, furnaces, ranges, and water heaters. Burning charcoal inside a house, garage, vehicle, or tent is also responsible for carbon monoxide-related deaths. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the cause of several thousand visits to hospital emergency rooms each year.

Important steps to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and inspected before each heating season.

  • Electrical space heaters pose less of a danger of carbon monoxide poisoning than those that burn fuels, such as kerosene. However, if you use nonelectrical space heaters, only do so in well-ventilated areas.

  • Do not start or leave running cars, trucks, or other vehicles in an enclosed area, such as a garage, even with the outside door open.

  • Do not 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 carbon monoxide poisoning is increased.

  • When gasoline-powered generators are used to supply electricity, care should be taken to keep the generator a safe distance away from the home.

  • Install CO detectors in your home to warn you if CO levels begin to rise. 

Consult your doctor immediately if you suspect that you or a member of your family has experienced carbon monoxide poisoning.