What is carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas that’s both odorless and colorless. It’s found in combustion (exhaust) fumes produced by:

  • heaters
  • fireplaces
  • car mufflers
  • space heaters
  • charcoal grills
  • car engines
  • portable generators

Everyone is exposed to small amounts of carbon monoxide throughout the day. However, inhaling too much of it can cause CO poisoning.

CO can increase to dangerous levels when combustion fumes become trapped in a poorly ventilated or enclosed space (such as a garage). Inhaling these fumes causes CO to build up in your bloodstream, which can lead to severe tissue damage.

CO poisoning is extremely serious and can be life threatening. Call 911 immediately if you or someone you know shows signs of CO poisoning.

The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are:

  • dull headache
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • difficulty breathing

If you breathe in large amounts on CO, your body will begin to replace the oxygen in your blood with CO. When this occurs, you can become unconscious. Death may occur in these cases.

You should go to the hospital right away if you’ve been exposed to a source of CO, even if you don’t show symptoms of CO poisoning.

CO poisoning occurs when there’s a large amount of CO present in the air. The actual poisoning happens when you breathe in this air, especially if you’re in a place that isn’t well ventilated.

The risk for inhaling too much CO increases if you’re near any of the following:

  • fuel-burning space heater
  • gas stove or stovetop
  • water heater
  • fireplace
  • idling car or truck in a garage or enclosed space
  • furnace
  • recreational vehicles with gas heaters

These appliances typically produce a safe amount of CO. However, the amount of CO in the air can increase quickly if these appliances are used in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces.

If you use these appliances in your home, you should place a CO detector near these appliances. It’s also important to avoid leaving your car running inside your garage or other enclosed spaces.

A doctor or nurse will take a blood sample to determine the amount of CO in your blood. Once CO levels increase to 70 parts per million (ppm) and above, symptoms become more noticeable. These symptoms may include nausea, dizziness, and unconsciousness.

If a doctor suspects you have CO poisoning, you’ll receive treatment immediately once you’re in the hospital. Quick treatment is essential to prevent life-threatening complications. Treatment may involve:

Oxygen treatment

The best way to treat CO poisoning is to breathe in pure oxygen. This treatment increases oxygen levels in the blood and helps to remove CO from the blood. Your doctor will place an oxygen mask over your nose and mouth and ask you to inhale. If you’re unable to breathe on your own, you’ll receive oxygen through a ventilator.

Oxygen chamber

Your doctor may temporarily place you in a pressurized oxygen chamber (also known as a hyperbaric oxygen chamber). The oxygen chamber has twice the pressure of normal air. This treatment quickly increases oxygen levels in the blood and it’s typically used in severe cases of CO poisoning or to treat CO poisoning in pregnant women.

Emergency care

You should never treat CO poisoning yourself. If you believe you have CO poisoning, go outdoors immediately and call 911. Don’t drive yourself to the hospital, because you may pass out while driving.

Researchers may have antidote for carbon monoxide poisoning »

Even minor cases of CO poisoning can cause serious complications. These may include:

  • brain damage
  • heart damage
  • organ damage
  • death

Due to the seriousness of these potential complications, it’s important to get help as soon as possible if you believe you have CO poisoning.

To avoid getting CO poisoning, you can take the following preventive measures:

  • Ensure there’s plenty of ventilation in areas with appliances or in a recreational vehicle that burn gas, wood, propane, or other fuel.
  • Buy a CO detector and place it in an area near the source of CO. Make sure to change the batteries regularly.
  • Don’t fall asleep or sit for a long time in an idling car that’s in an enclosed space.
  • Don’t sleep near a gas or kerosene space heater.
  • Don’t ignore symptoms of CO poisoning.

If you’ve been exposed to CO, get outdoors immediately and call 911. Don’t go back into the area until emergency service professionals tell you that it’s safe to return.