Each year, approximately 50,000 people in the United States are sickened by accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Of those, more than 400 people die from CO poisoning, many in their own home.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and highly toxic gas. CO is produced by fuel-burning sources, including furnaces, fireplaces, cars, wood stoves, space heaters, charcoal grills, and gas appliances like water heaters, ovens, and clothes dryers.

What is carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a life-threatening emergency that occurs when CO fumes are inhaled. Most CO exposures happen in the winter months, often from unvented space heaters.

According to the latest research on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, a total of 2,244 deaths resulted from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning between 2010 and 2015. The highest numbers of deaths each year occurred in the winter months. In 2015, there were 393 deaths resulting from unintentional CO poisoning, with one third of those occurring in December, January, and February.

The dangers of carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is dangerous when inhaled because it displaces oxygen in the blood. The result is possible harm to your brain, heart, and other vital organs. Because it is odorless and tasteless, you can be overcome by large amounts of CO in minutes and without warning. CO poisoning can cause illness, permanent neurological damage, coma, or death.

Who is at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning?

Everyone is susceptible to CO poisoning. However, it may occur sooner in infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly. Also at higher risk are people with lung disease, heart disease or anemia, those at high altitudes, and individuals who already have an elevated CO level, such as smokers. Fetuses are especially susceptible.

The signs of carbon monoxide poisoning

The symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to flu symptoms, with the most common symptoms including:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • rapid heartbeat
  • shortness of breath
  • seizures
  • chest pain or tightness of the chest
  • cardiac arrest
  • loss of hearing or ringing in the ears
  • blurry vision
  • disorientation
  • loss of consciousness or coma
  • respiratory failure
  • death

CO poisoning can be reversed if caught in time. However, even if someone recovers, acute poisoning may result in permanent damage to the parts of the body that require a lot of oxygen, such as the heart and brain.

Act immediately

Take these steps if you or someone else experiences any signs of CO poisoning:

  • Evacuate the area and get to fresh air immediately.
  • Open windows and doors and go outside.
  • Call 9-1-1 and seek medical attention immediately.
  • If the person is not breathing, start CPR while awaiting emergency medical services (EMS). EMS may start oxygen therapy for any individual who has been exposed to CO.
  • Call your local fire department to have the carbon monoxide level checked in your home.

How to protect your home and family

There are many steps that can be taken to protect against CO poisoning.

  1. Install CO detectors in your home to warn you if CO levels begin to rise. You should have a CO detector on every level of your home, including the basement and outside of bedrooms.
  2. Test your carbon monoxide alarm routinely and replace dead batteries.
  3. Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and checked before each heating season.
  4. 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.
  5. When using a gas-powered generator for electricity, be sure to keep it a safe distance away from the home.
  6. Turn off space heaters and be sure fires are out in your fireplace or woodstove before going to bed.
  7. Clear snow and ice from exhaust vents and pipes on buildings and vehicles.
  8. Never use charcoal or gas grills indoors.

For more information on CO and other home safety tips, visit the 4-Safety program page.

Ranna Rozenfeld, MD

Dr. Ranna Rozenfeld is a pediatrician specializing in critical care medicine at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.