Everything You Need to Know About Carbon Monoxide in Your Home

Everything You Need to Know About Carbon Monoxide in Your Home

Carbon Monoxide, or CO, is the ultimate triple threat. Humans have learned how to adapt to many things over time but we have not evolved to detect carbon monoxide build-up. These invisible and silent qualities are what make this gas scary. However, taking the proper precautions can protect you and your canary from this silent killer.

I'm a die-hard Grey's Anatomy fan! Having seen every episode since its premiere back in 2005, I've become quite the MD since I’ve been an intern, turned resident, turned attending for almost 15 years. I’ve also done all the research from various scientific studies and government documents and included them throughout this post! 

Season 16, Episode 5: "Breathe Again", was quite the episode, but what else do you expect from a show that has killed off most of its most beloved characters? Spoiler Alert: It featured a patient who was wrongly accused of a suicide attempt by carbon monoxide poisoning. They ended up in a hyperbaric chamber and almost died, all because they fell asleep next to their heater while reading! Which made me think, how do you protect yourself against something you can’t see, smell, or taste? 

Kelsey McNeal/ABC - Patient from Grey’s  in a hyperbaric chamber due to carbon monoxide poisoning 

If you have ever sat through a fire safety course, you may have heard of the “Fire Triangle.” A fire needs three things to start: enough oxygen, enough heat, and the proper material to combust. Removing any of these factors will put out the fire. Fire extinguishers displace the oxygen putting out the fire, but incomplete combustion sometimes occurs from carbon-containing materials such as gas, coal, oil, or wood. Blocked flues or chimneys, gas stoves, inadequate ventilation in living areas, exhaust from cars, and gas central heating are all possible sources of carbon monoxide. When these waste products are not effectively removed, you can be in for some big trouble as the carbon monoxide displaces the oxygen in the room causing the body and its tissues to become starved of oxygen.

Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide are very similar to other illnesses. 

These may include:

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

The severity of the symptoms also depends on:

  • How much carbon monoxide is present
  • The duration of time exposed
  • The current age and general health of the individual 
  • The amount of physical activity occurring during exposure. 
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Diagram

Image derived from Wikimedia Commons

Due to these subtleties, carbon monoxide is a sneaky and dangerous gas because you may not realize you are being exposed. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 430 people die in the U.S. from accidental CO poisoning and another 500,000 people visit the emergency room from a CO related incident.  

So what can you do to protect yourself from this silent killer? Installing carbon monoxide detectors is your number one precaution. These should be placed in the hallway of each sleeping area in your house and near your kitchen and family room. Be sure to check if your local laws require you to have a carbon monoxide detector in your home. 

If the alarm sounds that means carbon monoxide has reached a high enough level to affect you. Most people feel the effects of carbon monoxide at 50 ppm, so be sure your sensor can detect an amount equal to or lower than 50 ppm. 

If your carbon monoxide detector goes off relax - remember the part about carbon monoxide affecting you more depending on your physical exertion - and get everyone in your home outside. If you can, open all windows and doors to air out your home before heading outside. Do a health check of all family members for any flu-like symptoms and call 911 immediately if you do. Do not head back inside until your alarm stops or authorities deem your home safe for re-entering. Contact a professional to look at your appliances and any other possible sources of carbon monoxide so no further incidents occur. 

As McDreamy used to say, “It’s a beautiful day to saves lives.” Be sure you have a sufficiently powered carbon monoxide detector installed in your home and that your appliances and chimney has been properly evaluated from possible carbon monoxide leaks so you and your family can breathe without worry. 

The source information linked throughout this post are from studies, other scientific articles, and government postings.