February 18, 2015

Stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning during cold snap

With temperatures in the next few days predicted to be the coldest of the winter so far, people using space heaters to get some extra warmth into their homes need to be aware of a potential silent killer—carbon monoxide.

Roads remain icy, people are stuck at home, and temperatures in the next few days are predicted to be the coldest of the winter so far. People using space heaters to get some extra warmth into their houses need to be aware of a potential “silent killer” inside their homes — carbon monoxide (CO).

Donna Seger, M.D., professor of Clinical Medicine and Medical Director of the Tennessee Poison Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says that the symptoms of carbon monoxide are numerous and CO poisoning is known as the “great masquerader.”

“Since carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas, you may not even be aware there is a problem in your home until it is too late,” she said. “Frequent symptoms are headache and nausea, symptoms which make one believe that they have the flu or a viral illness.”

Prolonged exposure can lead to other symptoms such as vomiting, chest pain and confusion, serious medical problems and even death. Poisonings from carbon monoxide are especially common during cold weather spells, as families increase the use of gas, oil and coal burning appliances.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, on average 170 people die every year in the United States from carbon monoxide poisoning from non-automobile consumer products, including malfunctioning fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, ranges, water heaters and room heaters; engine-powered equipment such as portable generators; fireplaces; and charcoal that is burned in homes and other enclosed areas.

“Carbon monoxide detectors should be in all homes with heating devices that have the potential to produce CO,” Seger said. “These devices may be life saving. If a device sounds the alarm, the house should be vacated. The fire department can do measurements to determine the level of CO.”

She said that treatment for CO poisoning is primarily with oxygen therapy, sometimes for 24 hours, and pregnant women should undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Some patients (and it’s hard to predict which ones) can also develop delayed symptoms such as memory and concentration defects, personality changes, psychiatric symptoms and neurologic defects.

Quick tips to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Install a CO alarm inside your home near all sleeping areas and test it monthly.
  • Place the CO alarm at least 15 feet away from any fuel-burning appliances.
  • Have gas, oil or coal-burning appliances, chimneys and fireplaces checked by a professional every year.
  • Do not use a kitchen stove or oven to heat your home.
  • Never use a grill, generator or camping stove inside your home, garage or basement.
  • Do not leave your car or motorcycle engine running inside a garage, even with the garage door open.

Read more: A story from the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt’s “Wishing Well” blog, “A Mother’s Story: Near-Fatal Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.”