Carbon Monoxide: The Invisible Killer

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Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas that often goes undetected when too much is in the air and can lead to serious tissue damage, or even death.
This “invisible killer” is found in fumes and produced by burning fuel in automobiles, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges or furnaces. The gas can build up in enclosed spaces, poisoning people and animals who breathe it. Even ventilation does not guarantee safety.

Who is at risk for CO poisoning?

All people are at risk, no matter what stage of life. Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning not linked to fires. More than 20,000 people visit the emergency room, and more than 4,000 others are hospitalized.

Common symptoms of CO poisoning:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Mental confusion

Symptom severity varies depending on the level of carbon monoxide and duration of exposure. Mild symptoms sometimes are mistaken for flu such as headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. High-level carbon monoxide poisoning results in mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, loss of consciousness and death.
If you think you or someone you know is suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, don’t try to take yourself or the person you’re with to the emergency room. Call 9-1-1 immediately.

How can I prevent CO poisoning?

There tends to be a spike in CO poisoning cases in the winter. When people turn on their heating systems and warm their cars in their garages during the colder months, it’s important to take extra precautions to keep you and your loved ones safe. Follow these CDC recommended tips:

  • Install a battery-operated or battery backup carbon monoxide detector in the hallway near the sleeping areas of your home. Make checking the battery a part of your spring and fall daylight savings routine when adjusting your clocks.
  • Have your furnace, water heater and any other gas or coal-burning appliances serviced every year by a qualified technician
  • Have your chimney checked and cleaned every year, and make sure your fireplace damper is open before lighting a fire and after the fire is extinguished
  • Never use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors
  • Never use a gas oven for heating your home
  • Never use a generator inside your home, basement or garage or less than 20 feet from any window, door or vent
  • Never run a car in a garage that is attached to a house, even with the garage door open

When a carbon monoxide alarm goes off the Consumer Product Safety Commission warns that you should never ignore it or try to find the source of the gas, instead follow these steps:

  • Immediately move outside to fresh air
  • Call emergency services, fire department or 9-1-1
  • Do not re-enter the premises until emergency responders have given you permission to do so