Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

By Tiffany Tseng. May 7th 2016

Can you think of a silent killer that lurks within household items? How about carbon monoxide? While the gas is safe and quite functional when used properly, it can be lethal when accidentally inhaled in concentrated doses. Such a situation is referred to as carbon monoxide poisoning, and should be considered a medical emergency that should be taken care of right away.

What Is It?

Carbon monoxide, often abbreviated as CO, is a gas produced by burning fossil fuel. What makes it such a silent killer is its odorless and colorless properties. It is extremely difficult to detect until the body has inhaled a detrimental amount of the gas, and if inhaled in high concentrations, it can be fatal. Carbon monoxide causes tissue damage by blocking the body’s ability to absorb enough oxygen. In fact, poisoning from this gas is one of the leading causes of unintentional death from poison.

Here are some common household sources that can emit carbon monoxide:

  • Kerosene or fuel-based heaters
  • Chimneys, furnaces, and boilers
  • Gas water heaters
  • Wood stoves and gas stoves
  • Fireplaces
  • Charcoal grills
  • Gasoline powered equipment and generators (such as houseboats)
  • Automobile exhaust
  • Portable generators
  • Tobacco smoke

Some of these pieces of machinery and equipment have been replaced with electricity as fuel sources in the modern day, thus eliminating the possibility of carbon monoxide leaks. However, in older houses and apartments, such risks can still prevail, so always perform periodic checks for possible gas leaks. Be sure to always keep enclosed spaces well ventilated as a precautionary measure, and never operate a charcoal grill or light a fireplace in an enclosed, poorly ventilated space.

Risk Factor

Some factors can place certain individuals at a higher risk for carbon monoxide poisoning than others.

  • Babies. Infants cannot express elaborate signs and symptoms, so their crying can be misinterpreted as discomforts other than carbon monoxide poisoning. Be sure to place the crib in a well-ventilated area to decrease the risk.
  • Individuals who smoke. Chronic smokers have a higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a weaker respiratory system. Signs and symptoms of poisoning may be confused with side effects of smoking and neglected.
  • Individuals who drink often. Those who abuse alcohol tend to be desensitized towards signs and symptoms of all ailments, including carbon monoxide poisoning. Since alcohol-induced slumber is also very deep, death by carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping is a lot higher in those who often drink heavily.
  • Individuals who have heart or respiratory problems. Since many signs of carbon monoxide poisoning coincides with heart or respiratory symptoms, people who already suffer from one of the latter two conditions may be more at risk.
  • Individuals who work with gas-powered equipment. Those who often work with equipment fueled by gasoline are at an occupational risk of CO poisoning. Studies have shown operating such machinery in a ventilated space still poses high risk; be sure to share such concerns with your employer and study the safety manuals to decrease occupational hazards associated with CO poisoning.

Signs And Symptoms

When signs and symptoms of CO poisoning are not addressed, permanent damage to the brain and cardiovascular system can occur, followed by death. If you are experiencing the following signs and symptoms, you may be experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning. Be sure to immediately check your heating systems for a possible leak.

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Impaired judgment and irritability
  • Paranoia or erratic mood swings
  • In worst cases, loss of consciousness and death

Unfortunately, carbon monoxide poisoning is often confused with the flu, alcohol intoxication, or sea sickness. One way to confirm symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning is to leave the house or suspected area. If the signs and symptoms disappear after leaving, it might indicate a gas leak. To be safe, be sure to open the windows and seek fresh air immediately if experiencing any such symptoms, and call 911 when it is confirmed.


Here are some tips that can be used to minimize your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Keep your garage well ventilated
  • Never start your car in an enclosed garage space
  • Conduct periodic checks of your household heaters and gas appliances
  • Follow the instruction manual on proper operation of gas-fueled machinery
  • Invest in a carbon monoxide detector
  • Keep your house well ventilated
  • Use electrical powered heat generators rather than fireplaces

Carbon monoxide is a useful gas when it is regulated and contained within the proper equipment. Be sure to understand this gas so you know how to properly handle it should you experience a leak.


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