Although carbon monoxide differs only slightly in chemical structure from the benign carbon dioxide we exhale, this dangerous gas is a silent killer. Carbon monoxide can only be detected by monitors—it is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. If your home’s carbon monoxide detector goes off, you may know to monitor yourself for headaches or nausea and stay out of the house until the fire department can complete an inspection, but there are many important facts about carbon monoxide poisoning that you may not be aware of. Read on to learn more.

1. A headache and nausea are not the only symptoms. One of the reasons carbon monoxide is so dangerous is that the symptoms of poisoning often mimic the flu. Victims won’t run a fever, but on top of a headache and nausea, they may also feel especially tired, dizzy, or short of breath. These symptoms may send you to the doctor, who may not immediately suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. Prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide gas—even at levels that aren’t high enough to cause the more severe symptoms of confusion, loss of muscle coordination, vomiting, and loss of consciousness—can cause death.

carbon monoxide detector

2. Poisoning can happen slowly. If a home does not have a carbon monoxide detector, victims may experience the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning for quite some time before seeking help. Symptoms of low-level poisoning may not be severe enough at first for a person to suspect a carbon monoxide leak. Unfortunately, if carbon monoxide levels build up in the home over time, victims of poisoning can die in their sleep without ever experiencing the more severe symptoms.

3. Your home’s heating system is not the only potential source of carbon monoxide. The causes of carbon monoxide poisoning go far beyond a gas furnace. Carbon monoxide gas is produced when fuel is not completely burned away during combustion. Homeowners with gas furnaces may know about the dangers of carbon monoxide leaks, but carbon monoxide gas can also be produced by wood-burning fireplaces, propane or charcoal grills, kerosene heaters, vehicles, lawnmowers, and generators—anything that burns a combustible fuel is a potential source of this dangerous gas. Never use a generator, grill, camp stove, or outdoor heater inside or near a window or door, and don’t leave a vehicle or other type of motor running inside an attached garage—even if the garage door is open.

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4. If caught early, carbon monoxide poisoning can be treated. One of the most frightening realities of carbon monoxide poisoning is that it can kill very quickly. If you suspect you or someone you know has been poisoned, the most important steps to take are to call 911 and get outside into fresh air. If you’re not sure of the source of the carbon monoxide gas, don’t waste time or endanger yourself further by trying to find it. Emergency personnel can take care of that for you. Treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning depends on the level of severity. Low-level poisoning may require some oxygen, while high-level poisoning will call for oxygen therapy.

Being aware of the causes and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning is a step in the right direction toward keeping you and your family safe. Beyond that, make sure that there is a carbon monoxide detector installed on every level of your home, and change the batteries twice a year.

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