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How Dangerous is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

4 min read

At least 430 people in the US die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 50,000 people go to the emergency room for accidental carbon monoxide poisoning per year.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause flu-like symptoms and can even lead to death. Learn more about how to identify carbon monoxide poisoning and what you can do to reduce your risk.

What is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Carbon monoxide is produced by burning fuel, such as gasoline, propane or wood. It has no color, smell or taste, so it’s difficult to know how much is in the air when you’re burning the fuel.

When too much carbon monoxide is in the air, it starts to build up in your bloodstream. This happens because your body replaces the oxygen in your blood with carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide in your blood can lead to severe tissue damage or even death as no oxygen can reach your tissues or organs.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms and Signs

Due to the odorless, colorless and tasteless nature of carbon monoxide, it can be difficult to determine if you’re exposed. While it’s common for some carbon monoxide to be present in the air when burning fuel, you may not be able to tell when it reaches dangerous levels.

Many cases of carbon monoxide poisoning result from long exposure to a slow stream of the gas. You can help protect yourself by understanding the symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness and feeling weak
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

Many of the early symptoms might seem like the flu. People who are asleep or intoxicated may not show initial symptoms before serious damage, including death in rare cases, takes place.

Where Can You Find Carbon Monoxide?

Although you’re probably exposed to small amounts of carbon monoxide throughout the day, it’s probably not collecting at dangerous levels. Higher levels of carbon monoxide are found when you burn fuels.

You can find carbon monoxide in the exhaust fumes of:

    • Cars and trucks
    • Fireplaces
    • Heaters
    • Gas ranges
    • Stoves
    • Furnaces
    • Portable generators

Your risk for carbon monoxide poisoning increases when the gas is trapped in enclosed spaces. Using a grill inside or running a vehicle in a closed garage can lead to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

Who’s at Risk?

You’re most at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning when you’re using a tool that burns fuel, especially in a poorly ventilated space. However, some people are more at risk for serious damage than others, including:

  • Babies in the womb
  • Young children
  • The elderly
  • People with breathing or heart conditions

Reducing Your Risk of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Although carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious health issue, there are simple steps you can take to reduce the risk of you and your family. Many cases of carbon monoxide poisoning are related to incidents in the home or involving vehicles.

Follow these tips to reduce your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in your home and car:

In Your Home

The best way to keep you and your family safe from carbon monoxide poisoning in your home is to install a carbon monoxide detector. Aim to install a detector that runs on batteries so it’s fully functional if the power goes out. Many modern detectors have a digital reading so you know exactly how much carbon monoxide is currently in the air.

Like a smoke detector, you should test the carbon monoxide alarm ever few months to make sure it’s working correctly. You should also be sure to change the batteries at least twice a year. Place your carbon monoxide detector somewhere you’ll be able to hear it if it goes off, such as right outside your bedroom.

Other ways to help reduce your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Have your home appliances checked by a professional at least once a year. This includes your heating system, water heater and or other appliances that run on gas, oil or coal.
  • Ensure your appliances have the proper ventilation and that vents aren’t obscured from sending gases outside.
  • For homes with fireplaces or wood stoves, be sure to have your chimney inspected and cleaned at least once a year. Buildup in your chimney can not only start chimney fires but could trap carbon monoxide inside the chimney and your home.
  • Don’t use a gas range or oven as a heating source for your home.
  • Never burn charcoal or run a portable gas camp stove indoors.
  • Don’t run a generator inside your home, and install a backup carbon monoxide detector nearby.

From Your Vehicle

The most likely scenario of getting carbon monoxide poisoning from your vehicle is if you run it inside an enclosed space. Many people want to warm up their cars before driving in the winter because it’s much more pleasant to drive in a warm cab.

Turning your car on in a closed garage, or an open garage attached to a house is a bad idea. Carbon monoxide gas from your car’s exhaust can quickly fill the garage and the interior of your car. If you must warm up your car before driving, move it into an open space, like your driveway.

It’s also important to avoid pulling carbon monoxide into your vehicle if you have a car or SUV that has a back liftgate, such as a hatchback car. When the car is running and the liftgate is open, carbon monoxide can pool under the liftgate. The gas is pushed into your vehicle when you close the gate. Open a window or another door to keep air move through the vehicle, even after you close the gate.

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