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

Published on in 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


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