What Your Family Should Know About the Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Published on

Health Tip of the Week

Carbon monoxide detector We all know how frustrating snow removal and power outages can be, but winter storms can also present hidden dangers that are frequently overlooked. One of the dangers that can follow winter storms is carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a dangerous gas with no detectable odor.

Whether you are trying to dig out your car after a snowstorm or using a backup generator during a frosty power outage, it is important to know the signs of CO poisoning and what you can do to keep your family safe.

Safety tips to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning this winter

Follow these rules to prevent exposure to carbon monoxide:

  • Only use gasoline-powered generators completely outdoors, away from vents or windows, and at least 25 feet from the house.
  • Install CO monitors in your home and ensure they have fresh batteries. Some smoke alarms are dual-purpose and detect both smoke and CO.
  • Do NOT use gas ovens to heat your home.
  • Is deep mud or snow blocking your car’s exhaust pipe? If so, make sure no one is in your car with the engine running.
  • Routinely check all chimneys, furnaces, gas stoves, etc. to ensure they are working properly.
  • Never use barbecue grills or gasoline-powered equipment indoors or in a garage.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

Early symptoms of exposure to CO, even after only breathing it for a short time, include:

  • Dull headache
  • Shortness of breath during mild exertion
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Dizziness

Continued exposure to CO may result in:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Visual disturbances, such as blurred vision
  • Difficulty concentrating

Prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide and lack of medical treatment may lead to serious and long-term effects – and may even be life-threatening.

Is it the flu or carbon monoxide poisoning?

As we find ourselves spending more time indoors and away from the cold, viral illnesses are likely to spread. Unfortunately, the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can resemble the flu, making it difficult to distinguish between the two.

If you are trying to determine if carbon monoxide poisoning is present, follow this guidance:

  • If symptoms appear to set in for multiple family members at the same time, then it is likely carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • The flu will likely only set in for one or two family members at a time and takes time to spread.
  • Power outages caused by storms might force your family into a common area like a living room, where a back-up heat source might be used to keep everyone warm.
  • If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, try going outside or leaving the room/area.
  • If symptoms alleviate, then they are likely caused by local carbon monoxide buildup.

What to do when you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning

If you believe carbon monoxide may be affecting your family, immediately evacuate the affected area. Then, either call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222, or go to your nearest emergency department. Your gas or oil provider should be able to help you identify and remove any sources of CO contamination in your home.

The Poison Control Center at CHOP is staffed by nurses, pharmacists, and physicians with special training in toxicology, and are available to help you free, 24 hours a day/7 days a week.

Contributed by: Jeanette D. Trella, PharmD, BCPPS

Stay in Touch

Are you looking for advice to keep your child healthy and happy? Do you have questions about common childhood illnesses and injuries? Subscribe to our Health Tips newsletter to receive health and wellness tips from the pediatric experts at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, straight to your inbox. Read some recent tips.

Contact Information

Next Steps
Girl getting a hug from toddler sister.

What to Expect When You Call

When you call the Poison Control Center, we will ask you a series of questions. Here's what we'll need to know so we can help.

Boy smiling

Poisoning Resources for Professionals

Find treatment tips for poisoning events, clinical pathways, information about toxicology assessments, and more.

You Might Also Like
Young boy wearing fire fighter helmet

In Case of Fire: Keeping Your Family Safe

Follow these fire safety guidelines to learn how to prepare, which can keep your family safe in case of fire.

Fire Safety

Home fires account for 84 percent of all fire-related fatalities. Protect yourself and your family from residential fires with these tips from CHOP.

Little boy exam

Lithium “Button” Batteries

The experts at CHOP warn about the dangers of ingesting lithium “button” batteries, which cause severe burns to the esophagus and stomach in as little as two hours.