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With Winter Weather, Carbon Monoxide Becomes More of a Threat

With furnaces on and the windows shut tight to keep out the winter weather, or generators running during a power outage, carbon monoxide becomes more of a threat.

“Unlike many gases, carbon monoxide has no odor, color, or taste, and it doesn’t irritate your skin,” explains Dr. Jenice Forde-Baker, assistant director, Emergency Department, Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center. “Red blood cells pick up carbon monoxide quicker than they pick up oxygen. If there is a lot of carbon monoxide in the air, your body may replace the oxygen in your blood with carbon monoxide. This blocks oxygen from getting into your body, which can damage tissues and become fatal.”

More than 400 Americans are killed by carbon monoxide poisoning every year, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Forde-Baker says that at moderate levels, symptoms can include severe headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, nausea, or faintness. She says since many of these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, food poisoning, or other illnesses, victims may not think that carbon monoxide poisoning could be the cause.

Dr. Forde-Baker advises that families get fresh air immediately if they suspect carbon monoxide poisoning by opening windows and doors, turning off appliances and leaving the house, then heading to the emergency room, where a blood test can confirm if carbon monoxide poisoning has occurred soon after exposure.


CDC Tips:

Any heater that burns fuel, such as your furnace, gas water heater, or a portable butane or gas heater, can leak carbon monoxide and should be inspected every year. Install a carbon monoxide detector in your house, and plan to check its battery every time you check your smoke detector batteries.

In addition to having a working carbon monoxide detector in your house, you should never burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn’t vented properly, never heat your house with a gas oven, and never run a generator in an enclosed space (like your basement) or outside a window where the exhaust could blow indoors, even if the power goes out.

When you’re driving, don’t warm your car up in a closed garage. If your garage is attached to your house, close the door to the house even if you open the garage door while you warm up the car. And when it snows, be sure to clear any snow out of your car’s tailpipe—if the pipe is blocked exhaust can back up inside your car.

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