Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Don’t Let It Sneak Up On You

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon Monoxide is not just a seasonal danger however It’s that time of year again when the days are getting shorter and cooler, and furnaces are starting to kick on again. It’s the time when many of my patients come to me complaining of certain symptoms.

However, when I ask them about their symptoms, many of them are surprised when I also ask them when was the last time they had their house checked for carbon monoxide? They give me a funny look and ask me, what do my symptoms have to do with carbon monoxide? Well, that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today – carbon monoxide exposure/poisoning.

What Is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

If you’re like most of my patients, you live in a house with gas powered appliances, i.e. water heaters, furnaces, fireplaces, and use gasoline powered lawn mowers, snow blowers, generators, landscaping tools. All these devices can be suspect for CO (carbon monoxide) if they’re improperly maintained or they’re used in enclosed spaces.

In addition, you may warm your car up in your garage (even with the door open) on a cold day, or you may be around constant tobacco smoke in an enclosed space – if so, it’s possible you could unwittingly be exposed to CO!

Carbon monoxide is released from fuel burning devices, such as those mentioned above, when incomplete oxidation during combustion occurs. Worn or poorly fitting hardware, blocked or improper ventilation, can also be a source of CO leakage into your home or place of work.

CO fumes can be so slight that you wouldn’t notice it as it is also odorless and colorless. However, if you, or family members, or work colleagues, have recurrent mild to moderate symptoms when the furnace is on, or a gas stove/oven is being used, or some other fuel-burning device is being used in your home, or work place, you could have a CO exposure problem.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Low levels of CO exposure can go undetected for a long time. Generally, a person will not have any symptoms when they are outdoors and/or away from the environment. The symptoms return as soon as they re-enter the affected environment. They include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Mild nausea
  • Mild headache

A higher level of CO exposure will intensify symptoms including:

  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness

What Can You Do About Carbon Monoxide Exposure?

As I tell my patients, the most immediate thing you can do if you suspect CO exposure, either in your home or other environment (work, etc), is to open windows and then leave the environment.

Getting out into fresh air will usually alleviate symptoms very quickly. Allowing fresh oxygen into the environment will also help dissipate CO inside until a service person can get there to locate the leak. If you feel dizzy and out of breath, get to an emergency room immediately. A a simple blood test can determine if your symptoms are CO exposure related and treatment can be given.

Other things you can to do prevent CO exposure:

  • Don’t idle your car in the garage: Even with the door open, in the enclosed space of an attached garage, fumes can build up quickly and enter the house before you know it.
  • Don’t use a generator in your house or garage: For the same reasons noted above, you should never use a generator inside your house, or in an attached garage. Make sure it is outside, away from doors/windows as fumes can come through them as well.
  • Don’t start/idle gas powered lawn tools in the garage or near open doors or windows: Again, fumes can build up quickly and move into the house.
  • Vent appliances properly: Have an appliance service person check the connections to gas powered appliances to make sure the seals around vents are tight and nothing is blocking the release of fumes to the outside.
  • Service your fuel burning appliances every year: At the beginning of every fall/winter season, do have all your fuel burning appliances (gas stoves, furnace, clothes dryer, water heaters, etc) checked for CO emissions.
  • Never use a gas oven to heat your home: Many people think they can just turn on their gas oven and open the door to heat their home in the case of a power outage or their furnace stops working. Doing so does not allow the CO to vent completely to the outdoors as it is partially venting through the open door right into your home!
  • Do not use a charcoal grill indoors/fireplace: We all like the great foods of a summer cook out, or you may have the idea to cook food in a power outage, by bringing a charcoal burning grill indoors to use in the kitchen. This greatly increases the chance for CO exposure, especially if charcoal lighting fluid is used. Also, don’t try to cook food in a fireplace using charcoal, even with an open flue, to avoid CO output into your home.

As I try to stress to my patients, hundreds of people die needlessly every year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. If you have recurrent symptoms, as I mentioned above, that seem to come on after entering your home or work environment, especially if others around you feel the same symptoms, act on them. Leave the environment, get into the fresh air, and, if necessary, get to an emergency room and have a test for CO exposure. Make sure the environment has been checked by a professional for CO exposure before returning to it.


Ronald Blankstein, M.D.

Ron Blankstein, MD, FACC, FASNC, FSCCT, FASPC is the Director of Cardiac Computed Tomography, Associate Director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Program, Co-Director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Training Program, and a Preventive Cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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