Carbon monoxide: Colorless, odorless and deadly
1/4/2018 by Dr. Denise Dupras
Approximately 430 people die each year from accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. CO is a colorless, odorless gas that is found in the fumes produced by stoves, lanterns, gas ranges and appliances, portable generators, grills, and burning wood or charcoal. The symptoms of poisoning aren't specific, but include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion and even chest pain. High levels of CO can lead to unconsciousness and death. CO is also harmful to your pets.
In the winter or during power outages, the risk increases because people use alternative sources of heat in enclosed areas.
You can protect yourself and your family by ensuring that you have CO detectors — and that they work. Installing them in your home and regularly changing the batteries is a first step. If you have a wood-burning fireplace, have it inspected regularly. Never leave a car or any gasoline-powered engine running in an enclosed area. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers tips for preventing CO poisoning, which are available in languages from Amharic to Kurdish to Somali.
If you suspect CO poisoning, get fresh air! Go outside, go to another location, open the windows. If you feel ill or think you may have CO poisoning, seek medical attention. Once you are feeling better, have your local gas utility company check any gas appliances such as ranges, furnaces, dryers or water heaters to be sure they're working correctly.
For more information, check out the CO resources from the CDC.
Dr. Denise Dupras is a general internist in Employee and Community Health's Division of Primary Care Internal Medicine. She completed her MD-PhD at Mayo Medical School and her residency in Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic Rochester. Her interests include medical education and evidence-based medicine.