I studied abroad in London for two years during the 1990s. During both winters, an aggressive campaign aired on television raising awareness of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Since then, I have been overly paranoid about CO and its potentially deadly effects. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but carbon monoxide really is a silent killer. You cannot smell, taste or see it. In fact, you might not even believe you feeling its effects. You may mistake symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, weakness, chest pain and nausea as a cold or flu. However, carbon monoxide poisoning is extremely dangerous—even mild cases, it can cause permanent brain damage.
Approximately 500 Americans die from CO poisoning each year. Thousands more seek emergency medical care for exposure to the gas. Carbon monoxide poisoning happens year round; however, cases increase in winter—particularly in December and January. This is because we are more likely to use things that emit CO gas. Portable generators, propane heaters, gas stoves, wood burning stoves and fireplaces, gas furnaces, propane-powered heaters, stoves and grills, oil and kerosene burning lamps—all things we use as alternatives to heat, cook and illuminate when the power goes out.
When we breathe carbon monoxide, the poison invades our bloodstream and robs our body of oxygen. Elderly folks, young kids, those with heart or lung disease, smokers and people who live in higher altitudes are more at risk.
One of the best ways to prevent CO poisoning is to buy a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector. It works just like your smoke alarm and will sound a loud alarm when dangerous levels of carbon monoxide are present. There are other ways to prevent CO poisoning, as well:
- Do not use your oven to heat the house.
- Do not run a generator inside the house, garage or basement—even with the doors and windows open.
- Do not use your portable camping stove inside.
- Keep your vehicle’s exhaust pipe clear of snow and ice.
- Do not start your car to warm up in a garage—even with an open garage door.
- Make sure all exhaust pipes, flues and vents are clear and clean before using anything that burns coal, wood or is propane-powered.
- Do not place a charcoal grill or generator within 10 feet of a window.
Know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and seek medical attention right away if you suspect you may be suffering from CO poisoning.
- Chest pain
- Irregular breathing
- Hyper activity
- Low blood pressure
If you think you or a family member might be suffering from CO poisoning, get outside in the fresh air and call 9-1-1.
Pets can get sick and die from CO poisoning as well, so keep an eye on them just as you would any other member of your household.
Do you have a tip for preventing carbon monoxide poisoning? Share it with us in the comment section.