Headache, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting are all common symptoms of cold and flu season. But did you know that these are also the common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning? Carbon monoxide poisoning often occurs in the winter—the same time that cold and flu season thrives. This is because as we burn fuels to heat our homes in the winter, these fuels omit carbon monoxide. Cars, generators, stoves, furnaces, fireplaces, and other fuel burning appliances can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. If we do not properly install and regularly maintain the fuel burning appliances in our home, the carbon monoxide builds up in the enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces in our tightly sealed homes or automobiles. Breathing in these fuels can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, hospitalization, or in a worst case scenario even death. As you winterize your home and car this season, don’t forget to protect yourself against carbon monoxide poisoning. How to Recognize and Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Have you ever wondered what exactly is going on inside your body when you experience Carbon Monoxide Poisoning? According to the New York Times Health Guide, if you breathe in carbon monoxide the poison replaces the oxygen in your bloodstream. Your blood helps oxygen to flow to all of the vital organs in your body. But if carbon monoxide gets into your blood stream, “your heart, brain, and body will become starved of oxygen.” This lack of oxygen may result in death if not recognized or treated in time. The tricky thing about carbon monoxide is that it’s a colorless and odorless gas. However, there are several signs and indicators that you can learn to recognize if there is a buildup of carbon monoxide in your home.

Physical Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

One of the main physical signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning is experiencing symptoms ONLY in the location where a high concentration of carbon monoxide is present. For instance, if you only experience involuntary muscle twitching at school, but not at work, home, or the grocery store, there may be carbon monoxide poisoning in your school. However, not everyone will experience the same symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. Aside from flu-like symptoms, there are several other physical symptoms to be aware of. You may only experience some of these symptoms.
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred, spotted, gray or black and white vision
  • Loss of Consciousness
  • Reduced Muscle Coordination and Balance (trouble walking)
  • Involuntary muscle twitching, tremors (Parkinson-like symptoms)
  • Problems writing (thinking clearly)
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Difficulty processing visual information like fast moving images
  • Increased urge to urinate
  • Fatigue
  • Problems regulating Body temperature
If you think you have been exposed to carbon monoxide, get medical attention immediately. Stepping out into fresh air will lessen the symptoms, but will not remove the poisoning and oxygen deprivation occurring in your bloodstream entirely.

Visible Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

If you experience any of the physical symptoms above, but seem to improve in areas with clean oxygen, start looking for visible signs of poor ventilation around your home that could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. It might even be a good idea to keep an eye out for these signs before winter arrives. These visible signs include:
    • Moisture inside windows or walls in furnace room (or inside your car)
    • Clogged Chimney
    • Excessive rusting or water streaking on Chimneys, flue pipes, or appliance jackets
    • Debris or soot falling from appliances, chimneys, furnaces, or fireplaces
    • Small amounts of water leaking at the base of the chimney, vent, or flue pipe
    • Streaks of carbon or soot around the service door of your fuel burning appliances
    • Loose or disconnected appliances (vents, chimneys, fireplaces)

Invisible Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Only trained service technicians can identify the “invisible” signs of carbon monoxide poisoning and correct them. This is why it’s important to have a service technician look at your appliances yearly to make sure they’re safe. Here are some invisible signs of carbon monoxide poisoning:
  • Internal appliance damage or malfunctioning
  • Hidden blockage or damaged chimneys
  • Improper Burner adjustments (on stoves and furnaces)
For more tips on recognizing carbon monoxide poisoning check out the [U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s] Tips

Ways to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Buy and Maintain Carbon Monoxide Detectors
  • Place one outside of each sleeping area in your home (in the immediate vicinity of bedrooms)
  • Regularly test your detectors (once a month) to make sure they work
  • Replace batteries in detectors each fall
IMPORTANT: Always install your detector following the manufacturer’s instructions so that it will work properly. Learn to Operate Appliances Safely
  • NEVER run a generator in your home or garage. Keep the generator outside, and away from windows, doors, and vents while its running. Opening windows and doors for ventilation will not prevent carbon monoxide build up.
  • NEVER install fuel burning appliances in your home without proper knowledge, skills, or tools.
  • NEVER operate an unvented gas burning appliance in a room where you are sleeping.
General Prevention Tips
  • NEVER leave a car running in a garage even with the garage door open.
  • NEVER burn charcoal in homes, tents, vehicles, or garages.
  • NEVER put foil on bottom of a gas oven; it interferes with combustion.
You don’t want to solely rely on the detector to identify carbon monoxide. Prepare, update, and maintain your home and appliances BEFORE there is a problem. For more prevention tips check out our "Additional Reading" section below.

Ways to Safely Heat or Power Your Home

  • DO NOT burn anything larger than candles in your home without proper ventilation
  • Vent all heaters that run on a fuel source such as natural gas, kerosene, butane, or oil (this does not apply to electric heaters)
  • DO NOT use your oven or your stove to heat your home. Doing so can create fires and allow toxic fumes to enter your home
  • Purchase an Indoor Safe Heater with an oxygen depletion sensor and an accidental tip-off shut off feature (this will protect against CO buildup and fires). 
 Now that you know some ways to protect yourself and your family from carbon monoxide poisoning, remember these preventative measures as you winterize your home.  Additional Reading: http://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/112345/464.pdf Sources: http://www.cdc.gov/co/faqs.htm http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/co/index.html http://texashelp.tamu.edu/011-disaster-by-stage/prepare/safety-tips-heating-homes.php http://www.smokesign.com/whataresymof.html http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/carbon-monoxide/DS00648/DSECTION=symptoms

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