Cincinnati Children's Blog

You can’t see it, smell it or taste it. But you need to know if it’s in your home.

There’s one common household poison even the most cautious parent can’t keep locked away where the kids can’t reach it: Carbon monoxide.

Every year in the U.S., about 500 people are fatally poisoned by the colorless, odorless, tasteless gas and another 15,000 have to go the emergency room because of exposure to carbon monoxide, which is produced when fuel is burned.

Winter is an especially dangerous time of year because homes are closed up tight and malfunctioning or improperly used appliances such as furnaces, space heaters and water heaters are producing the gas.

Carbon monoxide can build up to deadly levels within minutes, says Earl Siegel, PharmD and director of the Drug and Poison Information Center (DPIC) at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Siegel offers these suggestions for preventing carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Make sure appliances are installed properly. Follow manufacturer codes and building codes when installing any appliances. Most appliances should be installed by professionals.
  • Have heating systems inspected annually.
  • Install a CO detector/alarm in the hallways outside each sleeping area of the home
  • Never burn charcoal inside a closed space. This includes homes, garages, vehicles, or tents.
  • Never leave a car running inside a garage. Even if the garage door is open this can be dangerous.
  • Never service fuel-burning appliances without proper knowledge, skills, and tools. Never use gas appliances, including ranges or ovens, to heat your home.
  • Never operate unvented fuel-burning appliances.
  • Don’t use gasoline-powered tools or engines indoors. If it’s unavoidable, make sure windows and doors are open and if possible, place the engine unit so that it can vent exhaust outdoors.
  • Know carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms: They can mimic the flu, and may also include shortness of breath, vomiting, headaches, drowsiness and fatigue, nausea, and muscle weakness and confusion.

And if you think you’ve been exposed to carbon monoxide, get outside immediately. Open the doors and windows, get everyone out of the house and call for help from a neighbor’s house. “We don’t want to be on the phone with someone while they’re being poisoned,” Siegel said. “Fresh air ASAP is indicated for carbon monoxide poisoning.”

If you think you’ve been exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning, call DPIC at 513-636-5111 or toll free at 1-800-222-1222.  Skilled staff can offer recommended treatment for emergencies and advice about poisons and drugs 24 hours a day. 

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