Carbon Monoxide

Now that we’re in the grip of winter and furnaces are fired up to beat the chill, it’s important to remind everyone about a potentially deadly poison that can be easy to overlook because it has no color and no smell. That poison is carbon monoxide (CO), a gas that forms when something is not burned completely, or is burned in an enclosed space where there is insufficient airflow. CO poisons the body’s cells and stops them from getting and using oxygen. Itis hazardous for anyone, but especally for young children and the elderly. Other high-risk groups include pregnant women and those with pre-existing heart and respiratory problems. Common sources can include poorly ventilated wood burning stoves or space heaters, automobile exhaust, or gas appliances that are not functioning properly.

Symptoms of acute carbon monoxide exposure could include nausea and vomiting, fatigue, throbbing headache, shortness of breath, irritability, blurred vision, dizziness and confusion. Mild symptoms of carbon monoxide toxicity can mimic food borne illnesses or the flu. In severe cases unconsciousness and seizures can occur, leading to death.  Chronic exposure can result in headaches, weakness and personality changes.

The Indiana Poison Center offers the following tips to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Check and clean your heating system before the onset of cold weather. A professional should check all fuel-burning appliances, furnaces and fireplaces annually.
  • Make sure there is plenty of ventilation when working in an enclosed area with a kerosene or propane space heater.
  • All gas appliances must be properly vented - be careful not to block vents.
  • Don’t use charcoal briquettes for cooking or heating in an enclosed space.
  • Have your car’s exhaust system checked for leaks and don’t let your car idle in an enclosed space or if the tail pipe is covered by snow.
  • Don’t warm your car up in the garage, even with the door open. Move the car out of the garage to let it run.
  • Don’t run any gas-powered equipment inside a garage.
  • Don’t close the fireplace damper until the fire has completely burned out.
  • Place an approved CO detector on each floor of your home, near bedrooms. CO detectors should never replace proper maintenance and safety measures.

What should you do if the alarm on your CO detector goes off?

  • Always take your alarm seriously and take immediate action.
  • Account for everyone in the house, including pets - move them to fresh air.
  • Do not air out the house – this will make it difficult to find the source of CO.

If anyone has symptoms call 911 immediately. If everyone is free of symptoms, call the fire department or gas company for assistance. Don’t return to the area until the source of the carbon monoxide has been detected and repaired. Anyone who has lost consciousness, even briefly, especially pregnant women and anyone with a history of heart problems, must be checked in an emergency department. Anyone with persistent symptoms or more than mild symptoms also should be checked in the emergency department. Emergency Medical Services (EMS) or IPC can help you determine who needs to go to the hospital and how they should be transported.

To learn more about carbon monoxide or to receive a home safety check list, call the Indiana Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222, or visit the Center’s website at

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