Carbon monoxide: Knowing the answer to these six questions could save your life

How does carbon monoxide (CO) affect me?

In a typical year, nearly 400 Americans die from carbon monoxide poisoning, usually in their own home or car. Many of those deaths happen during the winter months, when people are heating their homes and reducing the amount of outside ventilation.

Even if CO levels are not high enough to be fatal, they can produce serious illness.

Where does carbon monoxide come from?

Carbon monoxide is produced by devices that burn fuels.

Your furnace, water heater, stove, space heaters, fireplace, woodstove, charcoal grill, and dryer can be sources of CO, especially if they are not in good working condition or have been installed without proper ventilation.

Vehicle exhaust fumes from attached garages also can become CO hazards.

Using kerosene heaters or charcoal grills indoors, or running a car in a garage can cause CO levels to rise high enough to result in death or serious illness.

How do I know if carbon monoxide is present?

Unlike natural gas or LP gas, which have a characteristic odor added to them to alert you, carbon monoxide has no fumes and no color.

We breathe in CO like normal air with no irritation to our nose or throats. Then, our blood cells attach with CO molecules instead of oxygen molecules, starving our organs from the oxygen they need.

For these reasons, CO is called the silent killer.

The best way to alert you and your family to unsafe levels of CO is to install a carbon monoxide detector. It works like a smoke alarm, sampling the air in your home and creating a loud alarm when levels of the gas are detected.

It’s important to evacuate your home immediately when your CO alarm sounds. While there’s no risk of an explosion, as there would be with natural gas, the effects of CO in your blood are accumulative, and the longer you’re exposed to it the longer it takes to rid your body of its effects. 

What are some symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Most people with a mild exposure to carbon monoxide experience headaches, fatigue, and nausea. Unfortunately, the symptoms are easily overlooked because they are often flu-like.

Medium exposure can cause you to experience a throbbing headache, drowsiness, disorientation, and an accelerated heart rate.

Extreme exposure usually leads to unconsciousness, convulsions, cardiorespiratory failure, coma, and eventually death.

Too often, death from CO poisoning results with the victim simply falling asleep and never regaining consciousness.

How do I protect myself and my family from carbon monoxide poisoning?

Your garage

  • Always back your car out of the garage to let it warm up. Never leave it running in the confined space of a garage, particularly if the garage is attached to the home.
  • Never run lawnmowers, snowblowers, or other gas-powered engines in confined areas like garages or sheds.
  • Never use ovens or grills to heat your home or garage.

Your car

  • Never dismiss a fender bender as something you’ll get checked later. Even minor collisions can cause breaks in your car’s exhaust system, allowing CO to enter into your passenger area.
  • If you get stuck in deep snow by the side of the road and decide to stay in your car and keep warm with your engine running, be sure to clear snow away from your exhaust pipe. A blocked exhaust pipe can cause CO to back up into your passenger area.

Your home

  • Never use a cooking device—an oven, grill, or camp stove—to heat your home.
  • Install a carbon monoxide alarm on each level of your home as your first line of defense. CO detectors are most effective when used in conjunction with preventive maintenance.
  • Replace old or faulty central heating and air conditioning units with new and improved models.
  • Make sure any heating and air conditioning system is installed by trained professionals with proper ventilation.
  • Maintain your heating and air conditioning system regularly, usually just before each big change of season.

How do you get dangerous levels of carbon monoxide out of a person’s blood?

The treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is high-dose oxygen. Using higher atmospheric pressure around the body can speed up the effectiveness of the high-dose oxygen treatment.

University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics has the area’s only multi-person hyperbaric chamber, a capsule that uses a combination of high oxygen levels and high atmospheric pressure to safely and quickly remove dangerous levels of CO from the body.

The Hyperbaric Medicine Facility, staffed 24-hours a day, is large enough for several members of a family to be treated at the same time.

Last reviewed: 
November 2017

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