Once, when working in the ER, I saw a family of four adults and five kids who came in with symptoms of headache and nausea. After getting some more information and doing some additional tests, I confirmed that they were all cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide, but at high levels, it can kill a person in minutes.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is produced whenever any fuel such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal is burned. If one maintains and uses appliances that burn fuel properly, then the amount of CO produced is usually not hazardous. However, when fuel-burning devices are not properly vented, operated or maintained, CO can build up to dangerous concentrations indoors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 400 Americans die every year from accidental CO poisoning that is non-fire related. There are more than 20,000 emergency room visits and over 4,000 hospitalizations related to non-fire related CO poisoning.
It is easy for CO to build up to high levels surreptitiously, especially in the winter months when heaters, furnaces and fireplaces are being used in closed rooms without adequate ventilation. The symptoms at moderate levels of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, confusion, weakness, nausea, vomiting and confusion. High levels can cause unconsciousness and death. Low levels can cause shortness of breath, mild nausea and mild headaches, and may have longer-term effects on your health. When breathed over long periods of time, low concentrations of CO may also contribute to other illnesses. Since many of these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, food poisoning or other illnesses, it’s often easy not to think about CO as the cause of these symptoms.
Fortunately, you can take simple measures to prevent CO problems. One such action is the installation of a CO alarm to detect this potentially deadly gas. Do not consider CO alarms as a replacement to properly working appliances. Also, do not select your CO detectors solely on the basis of cost. Look for Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification on any detector you purchase. A few additional tips to prevent CO poisoning:
- Have all fuel-burning appliances (furnaces, stoves, space heaters, dryers and water heaters) professionally installed and maintained.
- Never use a portable generator indoors, including in your home, garage, basement, crawlspace, shed or partially-enclosed area – even with ventilation. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO buildup in the home.
- Never bring a charcoal grill in an enclosed area – even with ventilation or even in a fireplace.
- Do not use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
- Do not sleep in any room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.
- Install CO alarms near sleeping areas. Alarms can be battery operated, plug-in with battery backup or hardwired with battery backup.
- Have a qualified technician inspect your fuel-burning appliances and chimneys and make sure they are operating correctly and that there is nothing blocking the fumes from being vented out of the house.
- Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of your car or truck every year. A small leak in the exhaust system can lead to a buildup of CO inside the car. Never leave a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
Helpful Questions To Ask Yourself
Think about these questions with regard to the possibility of CO poisoning in your house:
- Do your symptoms occur only in the house?
- Do they disappear or decrease when you leave home and reappear when you return?
- Is anyone else in your household complaining of similar symptoms? Did everyone’s symptoms appear about the same time?
- Are you using any fuel-burning appliances in the home?
- Has anyone inspected your appliances lately? Are you certain they are working properly?
What To Do If You Experience Symptoms
Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. It is colorless, tasteless and odorless. Neither people nor animals can tell when they are breathing it, but it can be fatal. If you experience symptoms that you think could be from CO poisoning, GET FRESH AIR IMMEDIATELY. Open doors and windows, turn off combustion appliances and leave the house. Call 911. Go to the nearest emergency room and tell the physician you suspect CO poisoning.
If CO poisoning has occurred, it can often be diagnosed by a blood test done soon after exposure. When you see the doctor, note that history is more important than symptoms. The most important way to recognize carbon monoxide poisoning is by recognizing the danger signs of behaviors and activities leading up to the moment that symptoms started appearing. In order to determine that your symptoms are related to carbon monoxide poisoning, your doctor may ask you questions about the recent weather, duration of symptoms and activities during that time, such as a family barbecue under the patio. This information can help confirm that your symptoms are truly carbon monoxide poisoning.