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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

What is carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a life-threatening emergency that occurs when carbon monoxide (CO) fumes are inhaled.

What causes carbon monoxide poisoning?

CO is a colorless, odorless gas made when fuel burns. Fuels include wood, gasoline, coal, natural gas, or kerosene. Breathing in carbon monoxide fumes prevents oxygen from being used properly by the body. It also causes harm to the central nervous system. People with health problems, such as heart and lung disease, are at greater risk for harm. Infants, children, pregnant women, and older adults are also at greater risk.

Most carbon monoxide exposures happen in the winter. The most common source of CO poisoning is unvented space heaters in the home. An unvented space heater uses combustible fuel and indoor air for the heating process. It vents the gases it makes into the room, instead of outdoors. A space heater that is not installed right or not working properly can release carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes into the room and use up much of the oxygen in the room.

Most space heaters use kerosene or natural gas for fuel. Newer models have oxygen sensors that shut off the heater when the oxygen level in the room falls below a certain level. Older models do not have this safety feature. Because of these safety problems, unvented space heaters have been banned in some states.

Other common sources of carbon monoxide include the following:

  • Malfunctioning cooking appliances
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Clogged chimney
  • Auto exhaust or idling vehicles
  • Malfunctioning water heater
  • Malfunctioning oil, wood, gas, or coal furnaces
  • Malfunctioning gas clothes dryer
  • Wood burning fireplace, gas log burner, or any unvented space heater
  • Appliances in cabins or campers, barbecue grills, lack of good air flow, pool or spa heaters, or ceiling-mounted heating units
  • Fires

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

These are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Seizures
  • Chest pain
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Loss of hearing
  • Blurry vision
  • Disorientation
  • Loss of consciousness or coma
  • Respiratory failure
  • Death

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may look like other medical conditions or problems, including the flu or food poisoning. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is carbon monoxide poisoning diagnosed?

CO poisoning is often diagnosed based on known exposure. Treatment will be started right away.  You may also have a blood test to check for CO in your blood. A physical exam may also show changes in mental status.

How is carbon monoxide poisoning treated?

If your child or other family members have any symptoms of CO poisoning, stay calm but act quickly:

  • Leave the area and get fresh air right away. Turn off the carbon monoxide source, but only if you can do so safely without endangering yourself or others.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS).
  • If someone has stopped breathing, get him or her fresh air, immediately start CPR, and do not stop until he or she breathes on his or her own, or someone else can take over. If you can, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, do CPR for 2 minutes and then call 911.

Further treatment for carbon monoxide exposure will be determined by your health care provider. Emergency medical treatment may include oxygen therapy. Blood tests, chest X-ray, and a heart and neurological tests may also be done.

What are the complications of carbon monoxide poisoning?

CO poisoning is life-threatening and can cause death. Brain damage can also result if the brain is without oxygen for too long.

Can carbon monoxide poisoning be prevented?

According to the CDC, more than 400 people die each year in the U.S. from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Important steps to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and checked before each heating season.
  • Electrical space heaters pose less of a danger of carbon monoxide poisoning than those that burn fuels, such as kerosene. Only use fuel-burning space heaters in well-ventilated areas.
  • Do not start or leave cars, trucks, or other vehicles running in an enclosed area, such as a garage, even with the outside door open.
  • Do not use portable heaters or lanterns while sleeping in enclosed areas, such as tents, campers, and other vehicles. This is even more important at high altitudes, where the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is increased.
  • When a gas-powered generator is used for electricity, be sure to keep it a safe distance away from the home.
  • Install CO detectors in your home to warn you if CO levels begin to rise. 

Consult your health care provider right away if you think you or a member of your family has carbon monoxide poisoning.

Key points about carbon monoxide poisoning

  • CO poisoning occurs when carbon monoxide fumes are inhaled and prevent oxygen from being used properly by the body.
  • Most carbon monoxide exposures happen in the winter . The most common source is unvented space heaters.
  • Symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea and vomiting, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, seizures, chest pain, disorientation, and loss of consciousness.
  • CO poisoning needs to be treated right away by getting outside to fresh air and calling 911.
  • Prevention of CO poisoning includes using CO detectors and assuring that your fireplace and heaters are working properly.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Date Last Reviewed: 3/26/2014
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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