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Staying Safe From Carbon Monoxide: What You Need to Know

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas that is not only odorless but also lacks color and taste. You can breathe it in without knowing. But inhaling it is dangerous. It can even be deadly.

You and your family should be aware of carbon monoxide all year round, but the risks can be higher in the winter. That's because turning on heaters, lighting fires and using your oven can fill your room with carbon monoxide if you don’t have proper ventilation.

We spoke with Bryan Kuhn, PharmD, a pharmacist and clinical toxicologist with Banner Health, to learn more about how to stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning.

What is carbon monoxide? 

Carbon monoxide is a gas that is produced when you burn gasoline, natural gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal. It develops when these fuels are not completely burned. It’s sometimes called the silent killer because it can be hard to detect.

In your home, appliances that burn fuel can produce carbon monoxide if they aren't maintained or vented correctly. This includes gas stoves, ovens, furnaces, water heaters and boilers. Portable generators, charcoal grills, fireplaces, cars and trucks can also release carbon monoxide.

Risks of carbon monoxide

Even small amounts of carbon monoxide can be very dangerous. That's because when you inhale it, it takes the place of oxygen in your blood and the oxygen you need can't reach your organs.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause a range of symptoms. Because you can’t smell, see or taste CO, symptoms can be the only way to know you’re being poisoned. 

Because symptoms can overlap with those of other health problems, carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult to diagnose. Watch for these symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness

In addition, these symptoms can be signs that your organs aren’t getting enough oxygen and are more serious:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion 
  • Loss of consciousness

Carbon monoxide poisoning is dangerous for everyone, but it’s especially hazardous for young children, pregnant women, older people and people with heart or respiratory problems. 

The longer you are exposed to carbon monoxide, the more severe symptoms can be. In many cases, you can fully recover from carbon monoxide poisoning. But sometimes, it can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

If you notice mild symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, get outside to fresh air and call 800-222-1222 to reach a poison control center

If you or someone else has more serious symptoms or symptoms that last for a long time, call 911 and get medical care immediately. You should also get care right away if you are pregnant or you think young children may have been exposed.

How to stay safe

You can take steps to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning for yourself and your family. Here are a few things you can do:

Install CO detectors

Ensure you have carbon monoxide detectors installed in your home. Detectors can spot leaks before carbon monoxide levels become dangerous. You should have carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home, including the basement and the bedrooms.

Place the detectors on the wall close to the ceiling and at least 10 feet away from any appliances that burn fuel. Test them monthly to make sure they are working accurately. Also, be sure to replace the batteries every year. Keep in mind that CO detectors are not the same as smoke detectors — you need both in your home.

Take proper care of your appliances

Poorly maintained gas appliances are the most common cause of CO poisoning, so make sure they are maintained properly. Keep them clean and use them only in well-ventilated areas. Have them serviced every year. And check for signs of leaks such as soot or staining nearby. 

Run your kitchen fan when you’re using your gas stove, and never use your oven as a heater.

Don’t expect to smell gas as a sign of CO. A smell of gas can be a sign that your appliance has a problem. But carbon monoxide doesn’t smell like gas — it has no scent. CO poisoning usually comes from a fuel that’s burning inefficiently, not a gas leak without a flame.

Use proper ventilation

Ventilation can help prevent carbon monoxide buildup. When possible, open doors and windows to let fresh air circulate in your home.

Never use a charcoal grill indoors or in a covered or enclosed outdoor space. 

If you need to run a generator, use it outdoors and at least 20 feet away from any windows or doors. Dr. Kuhn recalled a tragic story where a family put a gas generator outside underneath their RV. The CO built up in their sleeping quarters and caused two deaths. 

Don’t run a car or truck inside a garage, even with the garage door open. 

Service and clean chimneys and vents

Be sure that your chimneys, vents and fuel-burning appliances are inspected, maintained and cleaned annually by a professional. “You need an efficient path for the hot column of air or smoke to safely exit,” Dr. Kuhn said.

What to do if your carbon monoxide detector goes off

If your alarm goes off, you should leave the building. Seek medical attention if you or anyone else is showing signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Exit the home until it’s safe to come back. 

“If no one has symptoms, it can be tough to know what caused the alarm to go off,” Dr. Kuhn said. You can contact your fire department or gas company so they can try to determine the source of the carbon monoxide.

“The problem is that CO dissipates quickly, so you may need to have an idea of what caused it,” he said. “If you don’t have any obvious source of carbon monoxide and you feel it's safe to go back into the home, then it’s not unreasonable to open windows, run some fans and ventilate the home. If the CO detector goes off again, you probably have a leak.”

Be sure everyone in your household understands the importance of carbon monoxide safety and knows what to do if there's an emergency.

The bottom line

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas that can be dangerous if you breathe it in. It can build up in your home when fuel doesn’t burn properly, or appliances or heat sources aren’t vented right. 

Signs of poisoning include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, shortness of breath and passing out. 

To protect yourself and your family, install carbon monoxide detectors and make sure your appliances, heaters, fireplaces and vents all work correctly. To learn more about staying safe at home, talk to your health care provider or reach out to a Banner Health expert

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