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Safety at Home: How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Know how to recognize early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and how to best protect your family by preventing exposure in the home.

Yello and black carbon monoxide warning sign.

Often called the invisible killer, Carbon Monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas created when fuels (like gasoline, wood, charcoal, natural gas, propane, oil, and methane) burn incompletely. Carbon Monoxide (CO) can come from a variety of sources, including cars, portable generators, and malfunctioning fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, ranges, water heaters and room heaters. Burning charcoal in fireplaces or grills inside a home, or in semi-enclosed areas can also result in lethal carbon monoxide levels.

The CDC reports that approximately 50,000 people in the U.S. visit  the emergency room each year due to accidental CO poisoning and over 400 people die from lethal exposure.

A person can be poisoned by a small amount of CO over a longer period of time or by a large amount of CO over a shorter amount of time. Sustained exposure to high levels of CO can quickly incapacitate and kill you.

The dangers of CO exposure depend on several variables, including a person’s health and activity level. Infants, those who are pregnant, and people with physical conditions that limit their body's ability to use oxygen (like emphysema, asthma, or heart disease) can be more severely affected by lower concentrations of CO than healthy adults would be. Alcohol consumption and drug use may compromise the ability to recognize symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Woman sitting on couch who appears to be very ill.

CO enters the body through breathing and reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Because you can’t see, smell or taste carbon monoxide, it’s important to become familiar with the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Symptoms of CO poisoning vary widely from person to person and CO poisoning can be reversed if caught early enough. Early symptoms of CO poisoning can be similar to food poisoning or the flu, but without the fever. As the concentration of carbon monoxide exposure becomes worse the symptoms may progress in severity, and may include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue, Weakness, and Sleepiness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Lightheadedness and Dizziness
  • Mental Confusion
  • Visual Difficulty

Severe CO poisoning causes loss of muscular coordination, brain damage, loss of consciousness, and ultimately death. When extremely high CO levels are present, confusion, incapacitation, and loss of consciousness can occur within minutes.

The exhaust coming out of a car.

Proper installation, operation, and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances in the home is the most important factor in reducing the risk of CO poisoning. Make sure appliances are installed and operated according to the manufacturer’s instructions and local building codes. Most appliances should be installed by qualified professionals. Fuel-burning heating equipment and chimneys should be inspected by a qualified professional every year. When using a fireplace, open the flue for adequate ventilation.

Carbon monoxide poisoning incidents are always more common during the winter due to the increased use of gas-powered furnaces and alternative heating, cooking, and power sources that are used improperly during cold temperatures and power outages. Never use your oven to heat your home. Do not use gas or charcoal grills inside the house.

If you need to warm a vehicle, remove it from the garage immediately after starting it. Do not run a vehicle or other fueled engine or motor indoors, even if garage door is open. Make sure the exhaust pipe of a running vehicle is not covered with snow. During and after a snowstorm, make sure the vents for the dryer, furnace, stove, and fireplace are clear of snow build-up.

A carbon monoxide detector.

Make sure to have working carbon monoxide alarms in the home on every level and outside each separate sleeping area. CO alarms are designed to alarm before potentially life-threatening levels of carbon monoxide are reached. Interconnected CO alarms offer the best protection; when one sounds, they all do. Test CO alarms at least once a month to ensure they are working. Call your local fire department’s non-emergency number to find out what number to call if the CO alarm sounds.

A licensed electrician can install hard-wired interconnected CO alarms, or anyone can install wireless alarms, plug-in alarms, or battery-operated alarms. Purchase and install CO alarms that meet the current safety standard requirements. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for placement and mounting height. If you have a plug-in type CO alarm, make sure that the alarm also has battery backup. This ensures that the CO alarm will continue to work if the electricity goes out.

If you or anyone nearby begin to show symptoms of CO poisoning, or if the CO alarm sounds, get to a fresh air location immediately and then seek medical attention. Do not re-enter the area until it is determined to be safe by trained and properly equipped personnel.

A portable generator sitting outside in the grass.

A portable generator should only be used in a well-ventilated location outdoors away from windows, doors, and vent openings. Never use a generator indoors or in enclosed spaces such as garages, crawl spaces, sheds, or basements. Open windows and doors may not be enough to prevent CO from building up when a generator is located in an enclosed space. Do not use a generator outdoors if its placement near doors, windows, and vents could allow CO to enter and build up in occupied spaces. Using a portable generator indoors can be fatal within minutes.

CO poisoning can also be hazard when camping. Do not use a gas stove, light, or heater in enclosed areas like a tent, camper, cabin, or vehicle. This is especially important at high altitudes, where the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is increased. Only use grills in well-ventilated, outdoor areas. Do not leave a gas or charcoal grill unattended or while sleeping. See a doctor if you or a member of your family develops symptoms while camping. Carbon monoxide poisoning, which can easily be mistaken for a cold, the flu, or food poisoning, is often detected too late.

A small charcoal grill sitting next to a small cooler in front of a tent set up outdoors.

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