Carbon Monoxide: Hiding in Plain Sight

Katherine Cork's picture
By Katherine Cork on December 20, 2016

Have you ever stopped to think about carbon monoxide in your home? If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t.

However, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), each year more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide  poisoning not linked to fires, more than 20,000 visit the emergency room and more than 4,000 are hospitalized.

It is something you need to think about, especially this time of year when the temperatures drop.

What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. The fumes are produced when you burn fuel in everyday items such as oil or gas furnaces, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges and vehicles. If the fumes are allowed to build up indoors or other enclosed spaces, it can poison you, your loved ones and even your pets.

But by being aware of the symptoms and taking some basic precautions, you can protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Symptoms of Poisoning
When you breathe carbon monoxide, it displaces oxygen in your body and keeps your organs from getting the oxygen they need to function.

The main symptoms for adults–like headache, dizziness and weakness–are pretty non-specific,”  explained Christy Arthur, M.D., a Carilion Clinic Family Medicine physician. “For kids, especially young ones who may not be able to tell you how they’re feeling, you need to watch for signs like irritability, fussiness, crying and even increased clumsiness.”

Symptoms can range from minor to severe, depending on how much of the gas has built up in your home. Other symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Impaired vision
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Flu-like symptoms that go away when you leave home
  • Loss of consciousness and possible death at very high concentrations

How to Stay Safe
The best way to keep you and your family safe is to install battery-powered carbon monoxide detectors on every level of you home and near any sleeping areas, and don’t forget to check them regularly to ensure they are working properly. Other ways to stay safe include:

  • Have your heating system, vents and chimney inspected every year by a qualified technician. 
  • In a power outage, keep your generator outside and at least 20 feet away from doors and windows.
  • Don’t run a vehicle or a generator in your garage.
  • Don’t burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn’t vented. All gas appliances should also be vented properly.
  • Never use a gas stove or oven for heat.

What to Do if You Suspect Poisoning
The effects of carbon monoxide on your body can be reversed if caught in time. According to Dr. Arthur, seek help as soon as you recognize the symptoms.   

“Get to the emergency room as quickly as you can because the longer you are exposed without treatment, the more damage it can do,” she explained.

Learn more about carbon monoxide poisoning and how to keep you and your family safe from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).