It’s colorless, odorless and can kill you in a few minutes. Every winter, news stories abound outlining how unsuspecting people were sickened or killed by carbon monoxide poisoning.
The gas kills nearly 400 people each year in the United States, and has become known as the silent killer. Carbon monoxide is produced by the burning of fuels like coal, natural gas, wood and propane.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, everyone is at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning, but infants, people with heart disease, anemia, breathing problems and the elderly are at a higher risk of getting sick from exposure.
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide symptoms are similar to many other ailments, which can make detecting the underlying cause difficult. Symptom severity depends on the level of exposure and can include:
- Upset stomach
- Chest pain
If you think you have symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the area as soon as possible, and call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department. Poisoning can occur rapidly or over a longer period of time. See your doctor if you notice these symptoms of low-level, long-term exposure:
- You have trouble breathing, headaches or mild nausea when indoors
- Your symptoms improve when you go outdoors and return when you enter the building
- Family members, roommates or coworkers have the same symptoms
How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Any item that burns fuel can emit dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Common items include cars, heating systems, ovens, older chimneys, gas ovens and backup generators.
Protect yourself by installing a carbon monoxide detector on each floor of your home. If the detector’s alarm sounds, leave your home and call the fire department.
In addition to installing detectors, take these safety measures:
- Have your heating system or any other system or appliance that burns gas, oil or coal serviced by a qualified technician each year
- Don’t use a camp stove, generator, grill or any other gasoline or coal-burning device inside your home or garage. When in use outdoors, keep these items at least 20 feet away from windows.
- Don’t run a vehicle in a garage attached to your home — even if the garage door is open
- Make sure your stove and fireplace are properly vented
- Make sure vent pipes are clear of snow or other obstructions and never patch a leaking pipe yourself
Keeping your heating and water systems as well as any items that burn fuel in good condition and keeping outdoor fuel-burning items at least 20 feet from your home can help protect you from carbon monoxide poisoning. If you are concerned about symptoms, talk to your doctor or visit an emergency department.