Carbon monoxide (CO), sometimes referred to as the silent killer, causes more than 50,000 emergency department visits in the United States and at least 430 deaths each year. Americans ages 65 and older have the highest risk of death from CO poisoning. In Utah, there were 192 emergency department visits and four deaths reported in 2021 (the most recent numbers available) for CO poisoning. During the winter, the risk for CO poisoning increases.
What is CO?
CO is an odorless, invisible gas produced when gasoline, natural gas, propane, kerosene, and other fuels are not completely burned during use. Automobile exhaust is a common source of CO, but small gasoline engines, camp lanterns and stoves, charcoal grills, gas ranges, and furnaces also produce it. When these are not working properly or are used incorrectly, dangerous amounts of CO can build up indoors or in enclosed spaces and poison people and pets who breathe it in.
What are the Symptoms of CO Poisoning?
Everyone is at risk of CO poisoning. Because CO is invisible and odorless, it is important to know the symptoms of CO poisoning and immediately seek medical help if symptoms occur.
The most common symptoms include:
- Headache and dizziness (usually affecting more than one person in the same enclosed area)
- Upset stomach, vomiting, and weakness
- The disappearance of symptoms when people leave the area
If CO poisoning is suspected, quickly get to fresh air and call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222, or 911.
How can CO Poisoning Be Prevented?
People can take steps to prevent CO poisoning. For example, most fire-related CO poisonings can be prevented by installing and maintaining smoke detectors. Here are more tips for preventing CO poisoning:
- Heating systems, water heaters, and any other gas-, oil-, wood-, or coal-burning appliances should be serviced by a licensed technician every year.
- Install an Underwriters Laboratory-approved CO monitor on each level of your home near sleeping areas. Check or replace the battery twice a year. (As a reminder, do this when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall.)Boats and recreational vehicles with propane stoves or heaters should also be equipped with CO detectors.
- Inspect your home after heavy snowfall and make sure snow is removed from around exhaust stacks, vents, and fresh-air intakes.
- If your CO monitor alarms continuously, leave your home and call 911 or your local natural gas company.
- Get medical help right away if you suspect CO poisoning and feel dizzy, light-headed, or nauseated.Immediately call poison control at 1-800-222-1222.
- Do not use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline- or charcoal-burning devices inside your home, basement, or garage. Generators should be located outside at least 20 feet from any window, door, or vent.
- Do not run a car, truck, or other motorized vehicle inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open.
- Do not burn anything in an unvented stove or fireplace.
- Do not heat your house with a natural gas oven.
Knowledge is the key to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning. Anyone who thinks they have CO poisoning should call the Utah Poison Control Center at the number above or call 911.