3 Things You Need to Know about Carbon Monoxide

carbon-monoxide-detectorIt’s the time of year when we all want to kick on the furnace and cozy up on the sofa. But, before you do, keep yourself and your loved ones safe by checking your furnace and testing the carbon monoxide alarms in your home.

“In the fall, we tend to see an increase of people with carbon monoxide exposures because faulty furnaces and heaters are being used for the first time since the spring,” said Matthew Johnston, MD, a physician with the Memorial Medical Center Emergency Department and Midwest Emergency Department Specialists.

It’s estimated that about 170 people in the United States die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year. However, for each person who dies, several more are treated in emergency rooms. According to Timothy Harvey, MD, a physician with the Memorial Medical Center Emergency Department and Midwest Emergency Department Specialists, anyone can experience carbon monoxide poisoning.

“People with existing medical problems are at the greatest risk, as are the elderly who live alone because it is more difficult for them to get to safety,” Dr. Harvey said.

Carbon monoxide is odorless and tasteless, and can be very dangerous. You may have heard some of the common warnings, such as never grill indoors or leave a car running in a closed garage. But what you don’t know may put you and your family in danger.

1. Initial symptoms are a lot like the flu.

Low to moderate exposure can cause headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. Some people— particularly when the exposure is prolonged in a barely noticeable residential leak— can experience symptoms for a long time, assuming they’re suffering the flu or another illness, without realizing the culprit is a faulty appliance or furnace.

High-level poisoning symptoms are more severe and include confusion, vomiting, loss of coordination and consciousness. These symptoms are serious and require immediate medical attention to prevent death. Get the person into fresh air and call 911.

2. It’s not safe to leave your car running in the garage…even with the garage door open.

Most people are aware of the danger of a running car in a closed garage, but opening the garage door isn’t the answer.

When your car is enclosed, it should always be off. That means not letting it warm up in the garage—even when it’s really cold out. In the few minutes it takes to warm up, carbon monoxide still can build up quickly to unsafe levels.

“You should also never use a kerosene or propane space heater inside a home or garage,” Dr. Johnston said.

3. The No. 1 thing you can do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is have working detectors in your home.

In addition to annual furnace checks, Dr. Johnston and Dr. Harvey stress the importance of having operating carbon monoxide alarms in your home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends installing a carbon monoxide alarm near every sleeping area of the home and checking the batteries when you change the clocks in the spring and fall.

If you believe you or someone in your household may have been exposed to carbon monoxide, seek medical attention immediately.