Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that is created when carbon containing substances, such as wood, gasoline, and kerosene, are heated or burned. Carbon monoxide attaches more easily to the molecule in your body that carries oxygen everywhere it needs to be. If you breathe in too much CO, your organs and tissues don’t get enough oxygen and can’t function properly.
CO poisoning is very common and is currently one of the leading causes of toxicology related deaths. While not all cases are serious, any exposure is potentially dangerous and should be assessed immediately by a health care professional. Fetuses are particularly susceptible to CO poisoning, and all pregnant women who are exposed should seek medical attention.
- House fires; most components used in construction contain at least some carbon.
- Improperly vented fireplaces.
- Cars running in an enclosed space, such as garages with doors and windows shut.
- Damaged furnaces and water heater systems.
- Generators or camp stoves that use gasoline, kerosene, other fossil fuels, or wood running in enclosed spaces or in spaces attached to living/working areas such as: home garages, basements, and inside houses.
Common Symptoms of Exposure
Mild exposures may result in headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, muscle weakness, and confusion. You may feel like you have the flu, but CO poisoning may be to blame if all household members develop symptoms at the same time that improve when you leave the house and return or worsen when you come back. Your pets may also develop these symptoms. More serious exposures can cause coma, fainting, heart issues, difficulty thinking clearly, memory issues, difficulty concentrating, personality changes, and changes in sense of touch.
If you suspect CO poisoning, leave the area immediately and go to fresh air. Remain in fresh air, even if you don’t have any symptoms or your symptoms resolve, until the fire department clears your home. If you continue not to feel well or your symptoms are more serious, call 911 or go to the ER. At the hospital, the doctor may order blood tests and a non-invasive test to check your heart rhythm. Nurses or technical taff will check your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygenation at regular intervals.
If your symptoms are minor, or if you are pregnant, you will receieve oxygen through a special mask for several hours. If you are pregnant, your treatment will be longer to make sure both you and the baby are getting enough oxygen. In very serious cases, special treatment may be necessary. Following exposure, anyone with symptoms should contact the local poison center and/or 911, in addition to notifying the fire department or gas conmpany.
With prompt assessment and treatment, most people recover without any lasting symptoms.
- Always use stoves/generators according to manufacturer instructions and never in enclosed spaces or structures attached to living spaces.
- Maintain all stoves/generators and furnace/water heater systems as recommended by the manufacturer and follow the suggested inspection and maintenance schedules.
- Do not light fires in enclosed spaces and ensure that any fireplaces being used are properly vented prior to each use.
- Vehicle maintenance that requires the vehicle to be running should be done in properly ventilated spaces or outside.
Each floor of your home should have a carbon monoxide detector.
- CO detectors are available at all stores that carry home products. If you have difficulty finding detectors or cannot afford them, contact your local fire department for assistance.
- Place the detector on each floor near potential problem spots so CO is detected quickly (for example, near a furnace, fireplace, kitchen, or main floor).
- If your CO detector goes off and the detector is not indicating the issue is due to low battery, vacate the area immediately with all family members/housemates/pets and go to fresh air. Call your local fire department from fresh air. Do not reenter the premises until the fire department clears it and determines the source of the alarm.
For questions about this, or any other poisoning issue, call 1800-222-1222 from a local phone to reach your regional poison center 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year.