Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Know the Common Causes of This Dangerous Illness

Odorless, colorless gas can cause serious injury or death in just a few minutes
carbon monoxide alarm

When the temperature drops to dangerous lows outside, sometimes the greatest danger is lurking in our own homes.

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Carbon monoxide is a deadly odorless and colorless gas produced from burning fuels. It can build up in indoor spaces, poisoning the people and animals who breathe it.

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when vital organs such as your brain and heart are deprived of the oxygen they need. This can happen startlingly fast because your body’s red blood cells have a stronger affinity for carbon monoxide than oxygen, and carbon monoxide crowds out the oxygen in your bloodstream.

In addition, carbon monoxide can combine with proteins in your body and cause tissue damage. In both instances, serious injury or death can result from just a few minutes of exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide.

Common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning

“Emergency physicians usually see carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of one of two main culprits: One is when people warm up cars in a closed garage. The other is from unvented space heaters,” says emergency medicine specialist Baruch Fertel, MD.

“If people have a remote starter, they’ll start their car in their garage and the garage is attached to their house,” Dr. Fertel says. “Often during the winter months, we also start seeing carbon monoxide poisoning when people have space heaters that are unvented or that burn fuel in an area that doesn’t have ventilation.”

While most cases of carbon monoxide poisoning occur in the winter months, it can certainly happen in warm temperatures as well. Families who enjoy boating during the summer need to be especially aware of carbon monoxide poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares how carbon monoxide builds up on a boat and, why you should avoid hanging out where your boat’s generator vents out (usually near the rear).

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You may think that you don’t have to worry about inhaling carbon monoxide because you’re outside, but the closer you are to the fumes, the more you risk falling into the water and drowning.

The hidden symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

According to the CDC, carbon monoxide poisoning is responsible for more than 20,000 visits to the emergency department and more than 400 deaths each year.

The cure for carbon monoxide poisoning is to breathe in fresh air, Dr. Fertel says. Oftentimes, however, it’s difficult to know when there is a problem, and this is where the danger of this deadly gas lies. “Because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often vague, people don’t realize they’re becoming sick,” Dr. Fertel says.

Symptoms of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning include:

At moderate levels of carbon monoxide exposure, symptoms include:

Dr. Fertel says, “It’s important to take note of your symptoms, especially if others in the house experience the same problems.”

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“The important thing for people to know about carbon monoxide poisoning is if you start feeling these kinds of symptoms or are just feeling a little ‘off,’ it’s important to get outside into fresh air,” Dr. Fertel says.

How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

If you use a space heater in your home or office, make sure it has been inspected for safety and follow the directions for use.

Always check the electric cords to make sure they are not frayed. Also, only purchase heaters that have been laboratory-approved with an automatic shut-off feature in case the heater tips over.

Dr. Fertel recommends always having a carbon monoxide detector in your home. If the alarm sounds, it’s important to get fresh air into the home and call the fire department right away.

“Never assume that it’s a false alarm because it could be a matter of life or death,” Dr. Fertel says.

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