Plummeting winter temperatures mean that many people are turning up the heat and unintentionally putting themselves at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning (CO). Every year, more than 50,000 people visit emergency rooms because of accidental CO poisoning, and about 430 of these visits will be fatal. That is why everyone should take certain precautions when they use any type of heater.

Carbon Monoxide Sources

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas produced by burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels like coal, wood, oil and gas are combustible and release several harmful toxins into the air, including CO. Common sources of CO are furnaces, generators, gas heaters, stoves and motor vehicles. Because CO can come from so many sources, it can easily build up indoors and poison people and animals. That is why every home should have a working CO detector. In fact, the International Association of Fire Chiefs recommends a carbon monoxide detector on every floor of your home, including the basement. It is also suggested that there be a detector located within 10 feet of each bedroom and near or over any attached garage.

Symptoms of CO Poisoning

Once inhaled, CO reduces red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen throughout the body. The more oxygen that is blocked, the more at risk you are for health problems. Identifying CO poisoning is particularly challenging in the winter because symptoms are similar to other viral respiratory illnesses like the cold or flu. Low-level exposure can produce headaches, sleepiness, fatigue, confusion and irritability. Even at lower levels, CO exposure can lead to permanent brain damage and damage to your heart, leading to life-threatening complications.

At higher levels, breathing in CO can cause nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, impaired vision and coordination and disorientation. If CO exposure becomes very high, it can additionally cause loss of consciousness and even death. Because of the seriousness of this toxin, if you suspect CO poisoning, it is essential to get emergency healthcare help right away.

Preparing for Winter Storms

Extremely cold weather can cause power outages which in turn means that using generators, stoves and other heating sources can increase the risk of CO poisoning. Here are some steps to take to keep you and your family safe:

  • Have a qualified technician check and service your heating systems, water heaters, flues and other burning appliances every year. They should make sure that everything is installed and vented correctly.
  • An adequate intake of outside air is essential to eliminating CO so check to make sure all vents and flues are free of debris.
  • Avoid using charcoal grills, kerosine lanterns, or portable camp stoves inside a home, cabin, recreational vehicle or camper.
  • Never run a generator, motor vehicle or any gasoline-powered engine in an enclosed space, even if the doors or window are open.
  • If you must use a generator in an emergency, keep it as far away from your house as possible.

“Carbon monoxide can build up quickly and put your family at risk, especially during the winter months when we increase the use of our heaters. That is why it is so important to not only have carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home but know the symptoms and the steps to act quickly in case of an emergency,” said Deb Brown, Chief Mission Officer of the American Lung Association.

As scary as CO poisoning can be, it is entirely preventable. Visit the CDC’s CO poisoning website.

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