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Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

by Tony Bixby

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Often called the “silent killer,” carbon monoxide poisoning is a potentially deadly illness caused by carbon monoxide gas (CO). As the temperatures drop and we look to furnaces and fireplaces to heat our home, the risk begins to rise. While death from this illness is rare — there are just over 400 cases per year in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is still significant.

What is carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas, which is what makes it so dangerous. According to the CDC, anyone can be exposed to the gas without knowing it, and it can be deadly if you breathe it in for a long period of time. CO poisoning can be fatal for anyone, but people with chronic health conditions, as well as the very young and very old, are more vulnerable to its effects.

CO is produced any time fuel is burned. This includes many common items, such as furnaces, non-electric space heaters, stoves, water heaters, grills, fireplaces, cars and trucks, generators, small engines, and other machinery.

What are the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning?

The CDC explains that most signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to the flu. If you’re exposed to CO, you may experience:

  • Vomiting
  • Headaches/dizziness
  • Confusion/irritability
  • Weakness
  • Chest pain

Carbon monoxide can also cause you to pass out. Exposure to CO while sleeping or passed out can be fatal. It’s important to be aware of symptoms any time you’re near equipment that burns fuel or fire, such as when your home furnace runs in the winter.

Despite the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, it is entirely preventable. The first step to preventing illness or death due to CO exposure is installing a carbon monoxide detector/alarm in your home or business. The detectors may plug into the wall or be battery-operated, like your smoke alarm. The CDC recommends that you inspect your CO alarm to make sure it’s working properly every time you adjust your clocks — twice per year.

Follow these additional tips from the CDC to keep you and your family safe from CO poisoning:

  • Have a qualified professional inspect your furnace, water heater, and all gas-burning appliances every year.
  • Don’t use charcoal or gasoline-burning devices in or near your home.
  • Don’t use a stove or fireplace that isn’t vented.
  • Don’t use a gas oven to heat your house.
  • Always open your garage door before starting your car. If your garage is attached to your house, never leave a car running inside it even if your garage door is open.
  • Use generators and other outdoor fuel-burning devices at least 20 feet away from any window, door, or vent.

If you experience signs of CO poisoning or notice them in someone else:

  • Immediately move to fresh air.
  • Turn off all appliances/devices.
  • Call your local poison control center.
  • If you are already feeling very ill, call 9-1-1 or ask a non-exposed person to drive you to the nearest emergency department.

Keep these tips in mind to stay warm and safe this winter.

Tony Bixby, BS, NRP, CCEMT-P, FP-C is the Director of Pre-Hospital Services at UPMC Susquehanna.