Doctors’ orders: Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning this winter

November 25, 2018

Crackling fire. Hot chocolate. Fat snowflakes. Colored lights. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

But it’s also the season when the risk of accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning increases. Every year in the United States, more than 20,000 people visit the emergency room with CO poisoning and over 400 die from accidental CO poisoning unrelated to fires.

CO is produced by burning natural gas, gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal, kerosene, or other fuel. You can’t see, smell, or taste this silent killer. As you inhale carbon monoxide, it binds to proteins in your bloodstream, depriving the heart, brain, and other vital organs of oxygen.

Common CO sources in the home include furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, and non-electric space heaters. Stoves, ovens and fireplaces that burn gas or wood also give off CO. When appliances are malfunctioning, improperly ventilated, or misused, dangerous levels of CO can build up in the air you breathe.

Symptoms of CO poisoning may include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and sleepiness. In severe cases, it can lead to loss of consciousness, seizure, coma, permanent brain or heart damage and death. Survivors may experience delayed symptoms (DNS) such as memory loss, movement disorders, Parkinson-like symptoms, dementia and psychosis up to 40 days after being exposed.

CO deaths have resulted from using portable generators during storms or after natural disasters that cause electricity outages. You can prevent CO poisoning by always placing generators outside, at least 25 feet away from any building and away from doors, windows and vents. Generators should never be used inside any enclosed or partially enclosed space including basements, patios (even with open windows) or garages (even with the garage door open).

Common potential sources of CO poisoning during recreational activities like camping, hunting, and ice fishing include generators, charcoal grills and fuel-burning camp stoves and lanterns. These items should never be used in enclosed spaces such as tents, motor homes, yurts or ice fishing houses and should be kept away from open doors and windows.

In the winter, it can be tempting to warm up your car in the garage. To prevent CO from entering your home, cars should never be idled in attached garages, even with the garage door open. Snow blowers should be started and operated outside the garage.

CO can enter your car if there is a blocked exhaust pipe. Be sure to check your pipes for snow and ice blockages that can result from heavy snowfall, backing into a snowbank, or a passing plow.

CO deaths are largely preventable. One simple and easy way to protect yourself and your family is by installing CO detectors in your home. You can easily purchase them at local department stores or online for as little as $12. Installation can be as simple as popping in a battery and plugging the detector into an outlet.

Tips to prevent CO poisoning this winter:


Install CO alarms on every level of your home and near every room where people sleep.

Test your CO alarms at least twice a year, such as during daylight saving time.

Have your furnace and water heater inspected by a qualified professional each year.

Use portable generators only outdoors and at least 25 feet away from any building and away from doors, windows, and vents.

Check furnace vents and fresh air intakes for blockages after heavy snowfalls.

Clean fireplace chimney and flue each year.

Check your car exhaust pipe for snow or ice blockages.


Use a gas stove or oven to heat your home.

Use generators, charcoal grills, camping stoves, or fuel burning lanterns inside tents, RVs, or homes – even basements and garages.

Idle cars in attached garages, even with the garage door open.

Start or use equipment like snow blowers in the garage.

If your CO alarm sounds immediately, leave the area and seek fresh air. If you or others are experiencing CO symptoms, call 911. Call the local fire department from outside or from a neighbor’s home. Do not return to the dwelling until the fire department has determined it is safe to re-enter and, if necessary, until the CO source has been fixed.

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