The chance of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning increases as cooler weather approaches and we turn up the indoor heating. A colorless, odorless gas, CO is produced by cars and fuel-burning appliances, such as stoves, furnaces and fireplaces. If these items aren’t properly installed or maintained, they can cause CO levels to build up in enclosed spaces.
If you inhale too much carbon monoxide, it will block your red blood cells from distributing oxygen to your body. You may experience headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion—symptoms that may be mistaken for the flu. In extreme cases, you can lose consciousness, suffer permanent brain or cardiovascular damage or even die. Up to 1,500 people a year die of unintentional CO poisoning, and thousands more are injured.
Prevention is the key to avoiding CO poisoning. Safeguard yourself and your family from danger by taking these steps:
- Install a CO detector to sound an alarm (similar to a smoke alarm) to warn if CO levels in your home build to dangerous levels. (See “A Sense of Security.”)
- Have fuel-burning appliances serviced or inspected before the start of every heating season.
- Check your flues and chimneys to make sure they aren’t blocked and are in good condition.
- Choose appliances that vent fumes to the outside.
- Avoid using a gas oven to heat your home—even for a short time.
- Resist using a charcoal grill or any gasoline-powered engines—mowers, chain saws, generators, snowblowers—in enclosed spaces.
- Move your car outside of the garage if you have to leave it idling. Even if the garage door is open, you can still be affected by CO. If it’s an attached garage, gas can leak into your home’s living areas.
- Check for any obstructions blocking your car’s tailpipe. Have your vehicle’s exhaust system checked every year for leaks, which can lead to a CO buildup inside the car.
- Keep bedrooms well ventilated and never sleep in a room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.
- Make sure doors on wood-burning stoves fit tightly.
If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning, immediately open your home’s doors and windows, turn off any CO-emitting appliances and head to the emergency room for prompt diagnosis and treatment.
When you arrive at the hospital, immediately tell the ER staff that you believe you have CO poisoning. The healthcare provider who examines you will ask specific questions to help make a diagnosis: Do your symptoms only occur in the house? Is anyone else in the house complaining of similar symptoms? Did everyone’s symptoms appear around the same time? Are there fuel-burning appliances in the home? Has anyone inspected them recently to make sure they’re working properly?
The gas in your blood must be replaced with oxygen to treat CO poisoning. ER staff will do this by:
- Placing a mask that supplies pure oxygen over your nose and mouth.
- Putting you in hyperbaric oxygen therapy. To remove CO quickly from blood, you’ll be placed in a full-body pressured chamber that contains air pressure that’s more than twice as high as normal atmospheric pressure.
Recovery from CO poisoning is slow and depends on the amount of gas you were exposed to and the length of time you were exposed. Infants, unborn babies, elderly people and individuals with anemia or a history of heart or respiratory illness are particularly vulnerable to CO.