Carbon Monoxide "The Quiet Killer" in Your Home

April 4, 2018 Providence Health Team


Carbon monoxide (CO) doesn’t smell, doesn’t taste, is invisible, and is soundless

CO poisoning is life-threatening! Go directly to a hospital Emergency Department, not your local urgent care

The CDC reports 20,000 visits to Emergency Rooms and more than 400 deaths annually from Carbon monoxide poisoning in the U.S.

Why do they call carbon monoxide the “Quiet Killer”?

Carbon monoxide is dangerous because we cannot see it, smell it (or taste it), and we cannot hear it. These traits make it particularly vital that you know the sources of, the effects of, and the treatments for excess carbon monoxide exposure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “During 1999–2010, a total of 5,149 deaths from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning occurred in the United States, an average of 430 deaths per year.” Statistically, the elderly are at a higher risk; and very young children, too, because they cannot communicate their symptoms.

Should you go to a “prompt care” or “urgent care” location?

The answer is no.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a potentially deadly emergency. Stopping by a nearby urgent care or prompt care can waste precious time. Go to the emergency department of a hospital if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. If confirmed, the emergency team usually flushes out the toxic gas by saturating the body with oxygen once the patient is stabilized.

What if you think there’s a leak or your CO alarm goes off?

Quickly get everyone (including pets if you can) out of the house. Move to fresh air. Call 911 or get emergency help if anyone has symptoms of CO poisoning. If someone is not breathing and you know CPR, administer it until help arrives. Stay out of the house until it’s safe, and call the fire department if you need help determining whether it’s okay to go back inside.

What are the signs of having Carbon Monoxide CO poisoning?

CO poisoning includes these symptoms:

  • Headache, dizziness
  • Weakness, nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath
  • Seizures, chest pain
  • Cardiac arrest, loss of hearing, vision
  • Loss of consciousness or coma, respiratory failure

What happens in the body with CO poisoning?

Carbon monoxide ties to red blood cells at the place where oxygen would usually attach. Starved of oxygen, the brain and other organs are essentially suffocated. Each year in the United States, approximately 20,000 people go to the emergency room for carbon monoxide poisoning.

When is exposure the most likely to happen?

Most carbon monoxide exposures occur in winter, and the most common source of CO poisoning is unvented fuel-burning space heaters. Another time they occur is during and right after a natural disaster when the electricity goes out, because people turn on gas heating elements or chimneys to eat or keep warm.

The third week in March was designated as National Poison Prevention Week in 1962. Even today, over 50 years later, it is easy to think that in the age of electricity and computers, something as “old-fashioned” as carbon monoxide hardly exists anymore. In fact, there are still many potential sources of carbon monoxide gas including gas clothes dryers, automobiles, and barbecue grills.

What are some precautions and safety tips?

Here are a few from the CDC’s CO FAQs:

  • Install a battery-operated or battery-backup carbon monoxide detector in your home or apartment, and check the batteries regularly.
  • Make sure in older buildings that are not legally required to have CO detectors that you or the building manager has them installed.
  • Never use a portable fuel generator inside the home or in an enclosed area.
  • Keep gas-type combustion engines, charcoal or space heaters at least 20 feet from individuals.
  • Never turn on your car’s engine in the garage. Always pull it out of the driveway first.

What about carbon monoxide detectors?

They are essential. The best place to mount them is near where people sleep. The worst place to keep them is unused and unopened in the original box – install them immediately after purchase. Buy a certified model that is battery operated. If electrical, it should have a battery backup.

Still have questions?

If you need information about carbon monoxide or any other poisons, you can callthe American Association of Poison Control Centers, AAPCC. They support the nation’s 55 poison centers and offer free, confidential, expert medical advice 24/7/365 through the Poison Help Line at 1-800-222-1222 and online at

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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