Carbon Monoxide By H. Joseph Bitar III, MD

Carbon monoxide (CO) is one of the most common poisonings seen in the United States, usually occurring in the winter months.  However, year-round devices, like gas water heaters, can lead to problems during warm weather months.

CO is released by the burning of wood, gasoline, charcoal or any related “organic” substance.  Natural gas appliances that have not been well maintained give off CO.  Gasoline engines produce CO normally, as does the burning of wood in fireplaces or wood-burning stoves and charcoal used in grills.

CO itself is odorless and colorless and can be present without the smell of “fumes” or “something burning.”  A CO detector may be the only way to know that high levels have built up.  CO detectors are commonly available and are strongly recommended for all homes.  Many municipalities now require them as part of their building codes.

Early symptoms of CO poisoning include nausea, vomiting and headache.  Since these are also common viral symptoms, they often get dismissed as being “just the flu.” This delays recognition of the danger.  The suspicion of CO poisoning can be increased if more than one person develops symptoms in a short period of time, but a CO detector is still the earliest way to know CO is the problem.

Advanced symptoms include change in consciousness (“not acting right”), unconsciousness and seizures.  A victim will die if not rescued from the CO exposure once these symptoms set in. 

Children and infants are more sensitive than adults to the effects of CO due to their smaller size. 

Have your home protected with properly installed detectors, have your gas appliances checked regularly, ensure proper ventilation of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, don’t run gasoline engines indoors and use proper precautions with any other potential CO source.