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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Home Safety Basics

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Updated February 09, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Carbon monoxide is often described as a silent killer -- it can't be seen, smelled, or heard.

And unfortunately, it kills more than 400 people a year in the United States.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be hard to recognize, mostly because people just don't think that they may be related to carbon monoxide poisoning.

These symptoms commonly include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • chest pain
  • confusion

Be sure to seek immediate medical attention if you think you have any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. This is especially important if your carbon monoxide detector has sounded, in which case you should immediately leave your home and call 911.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Although it can sometimes be hard to recognize carbon monoxide poisoning, especially since some people who are exposed to carbon monoxide never even wake up, it is far easier to prevent exposure to carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide can be produced as a byproduct when carbon-containing compounds are burned, such as when you use a portable generator, gasoline-powered vehicle, furnace, or burning wood or charcoal inside an enclosed place.

So the best way to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning is to:

  • have your gas, oil, or coal-powered heating system serviced by a qualified technician each year
  • avoid using a portable generator, charcoal grill, or gas lantern inside an enclosed place, such as your home, garage, or basement
  • avoid running a vehicle in a garage that is attached to your home
  • make sure stoves and fireplaces are well-vented
  • get your chimneys checked and cleaned every year so that they don't become blocked
  • avoid using gas-powered tools, such as a gas-powered pressure washer or gas-powered water pump, in an enclosed place
  • check to make sure that your car's exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow, as a blocked exhaust pipe can cause carbon monoxide to see into the car's interior if the car is running, which sometimes happens if your are shoveling snow and other family members are in the running car trying to keep warm

Most importantly, be sure to install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in your home, and replace the batteries each year. If you have an attached garage or anything that isn't electric in your home, like a gas water heater or gas heating system, then it is especially important to have a carbon monoxide detector.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Accidents and Tragedies

Carbon monoxide poisoning is more common that people think. In addition to the 400 people who die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year, an additional 20,000 people go to the ER and 4,000 are hospitalized because of high levels of carbon monoxide.

Some recent carbon monoxide poisoning accidents and tragedies include:

  • A 14-year-old in Boston who died of carbon monoxide poisoning inside a running car as his father was outside shoveling snow.li>
  • An elderly couple in New Jersey who died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a gas-powered generator they had in their enclosed garage because of a power outage
  • Eleven residents of an apartment building who were hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning in New London, Wisconsin because of a broken exhaust pipe on a hot water heater
  • nine people in Portland, Oregon were taken to the hospital after being exposed to carbon monoxide at church from a malfunction in a furnace
  • A women in Dutchess County, New York died while using a hibachi style grill inside as a source for heat. Her daughter was hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • A man in Wellfleet, Massachusetts died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working on a riding mower in a garden shed
  • A family in Wilkinsburg, including 5 children, were hospitalized with carbon monoxide because of an improperly vented furnace exhaust
  • three people in Coal Township, Pennsylvania died from high levels of carbon monoxide caused by a blocked chimney flue
  • A family in Wallingford, Connecticut, including five children, were taken to the hospital because of exposure to carbon monoxide from a charcoal grill inside the kitchen of their home that they were cooking on

While you can avoid all of these incidents, like a malfunctioning furnace, especially if it had passed its yearly inspection, a carbon monoxide detector can alert you to any dangers before levels build up high enough to make you sick.

Sources:

CDC. Prevent Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning. Accessed November 2011.

Marx: Rosen's Emergency Medicine, 7th ed.

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