What causes carbon monoxide poisoning?
CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas made when fuel burns. Fuels include wood, gasoline, coal, natural gas, or kerosene. Breathing in CO fumes prevents the body from using oxygen properly. This can harm the brain, heart, and other organs. People with health problems, such as heart and lung disease, are at greater risk for harm. Infants, children, pregnant women, and older adults are also at greater risk.
Most CO exposures happen in the winter in cold climates. The very common source of CO poisoning is unvented space heaters in the home. An unvented space heater uses combustible fuel and indoor air for the heating process. It vents the gases it makes into the room, instead of outdoors. A space heater that is not installed right or not working properly can release CO and other toxic fumes into the room and use up much of the oxygen in the room.
Most space heaters use kerosene or natural gas for fuel. Newer models have oxygen sensors that shut off the heater when the oxygen level in the room falls below a certain level. Older models do not have this safety feature. Because of these safety problems, some states ban unvented space heaters.
Other common sources of CO:
- Malfunctioning cooking appliances
- Tobacco smoke
- Clogged chimney
- Auto exhaust or idling vehicles
- Malfunctioning water heater
- Malfunctioning oil, wood, gas, or coal furnace
- Malfunctioning gas clothes dryer
- Wood burning fireplace or gas log burner
- Gas or fuel-burning appliances in cabins or campers, barbecue grills, pool or spa heaters, or ceiling-mounted heating units
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
These are the most common symptoms of CO poisoning:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Cardiac arrest
- Loss of hearing
- Blurry vision
- Loss of consciousness or coma
- Respiratory failure
These symptoms look like other health problems, such as the flu or food poisoning. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is carbon monoxide poisoning treated?
If your child or other family members have any symptoms of CO poisoning, stay calm but act quickly:
- Leave the area and get fresh air right away. Turn off the CO source, but only if you can do so quickly and safely without endangering yourself or others.
- Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS).
- If someone has stopped breathing, get the person fresh air right away. Start CPR and do not stop until he or she breathes on his or her own, or someone else can take over. If you can, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, do CPR for 2 minutes and then call 911.
Your healthcare provider will determine further treatment for CO exposure. Emergency care may include oxygen therapy.
What can I do to help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?
These important steps can help protect against CO poisoning:
- Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and checked before each heating season.
- Only use fuel-burning space heaters in well-ventilated areas. Electrical space heaters pose no danger of carbon monoxide poisoning, unlike those that burn fuels, such as kerosene.
- Do not start or leave cars, trucks, or other vehicles running in an enclosed area, such as a garage, even with the outside door open.
- Do not use portable heaters or lanterns while sleeping in enclosed areas, such as tents, campers, and other vehicles. This is even more important at high altitudes, where the risk of CO poisoning is increased.
- Never use a gas stove or oven for heating a room.
- When using a gas-powered generator for electricity, be sure to keep it a safe distance away from the home.
- Install battery backup CO detectors in your home to warn you if CO levels begin to rise.
Seek medical care right away if you think you or a member of your family has CO poisoning.