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3 Subtle signs you have carbon monoxide poisoning

Bethany Ramos is an editor, blogger, and chick lit author. Bethany works as Editor in Chief for Naturally Healthy Publications.

Little warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning that are easy to miss

Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, and that’s exactly why it’s called the silent killer. Carbon monoxide, or CO, is also not a "respecter of persons" — which means that anyone in a home could be at risk for poisoning if there is an undetected leak, with babies, the elderly and the chronically ill being the most vulnerable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this potentially deadly gas can be found in fuel-burning fumes produced by cars and trucks, small engines, grills, lanterns, stoves, gas ranges, fireplaces or furnaces. When carbon monoxide builds up indoors, and when it’s inhaled by a person or animal, it quickly becomes dangerous.

More: Protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning

Based on the latest CDC figures from 1999 to 2010, carbon monoxide poisoning causes 430 deaths a year, on average. This number may not seem as dramatic as the sky-high car crash and gun stats we see circulated on Facebook, but carbon monoxide deaths can be jarring because they are so unexpected — and so easy to prevent.

Just a few months ago, we heard the tragic story of a father and his seven children who all died from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning when he used a power generator indoors for electricity. Also, 21-year-old Shain Gandee, reality star of MTV’s Buckwild, was also believed to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning when he was found dead in his truck with the engine running two years ago. Those who are lucky enough to survive may face a long road of recovery ahead, like the Canadian family who left their car idling in the garage for just 40 minutes before being rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

More: 6 Dirty secrets your home is hiding

Carbon monoxide risk heightens in certain high-risk situations — for example, as the weather gets colder and we turn on our furnaces or when we leave the engine running. Understanding the risks and recognizing subtle signs can help to ensure that this preventable accident doesn’t happen to you.

Early warning signs

The early warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be confused for feeling under the weather, which is why Dr. Daniel Rusyniak, medical director of the Indiana Poison Center at Indiana University Health, keeps his top red flags short and sweet:

  1. Headache is the most common symptom and is often accompanied by nausea.
  2. Feeling short of breath (like you just ran up a flight of stairs) can be accompanied by chest pain.
  3. Feeling foggy, confused or light-headed.

If you experience one or more of these “unexplainable” symptoms, Rusyniak advises:

  1. Go outside immediately and see if your symptoms improve. Common sources of carbon monoxide exposure include gas furnaces, gas-powered generators, gas-powered space heaters (e.g., kerosene) and operating gas-powered equipment indoors (e.g., power-washing your basement).
  2. If you have a gas furnace, call the fire department to come and test your house for carbon monoxide.
  3. If you are running a gas-powered space heater or equipment, turn them off.
  4. If your symptoms are severe or if you don’t quickly or completely recover (within five minutes), then call 911 and go to the local emergency department.
  5. If you have questions about carbon monoxide or its symptoms, call your poison control center at 800-222-1222.

Advanced warning signs

Dr. Nicholas Kman, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees with Rusyniak’s assessment of the carbon monoxide basics — a headache is the most common symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning that is “largely variable and nonspecific,” making it very difficult to diagnose.

“As folks get sicker (severe poisoning), we can see altered mental status, confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures and coma. People can also get heart trouble (myocardial ischemia) — loss of consciousness, vomiting and confusion,” Kman explains.

For more advanced warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, the same rules apply: Get outside as quickly as possible to escape the source of the leak and call 911 immediately. More severe symptoms should not be ignored since long-term effects of carbon monoxide exposure may not go away on their own.

How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning may come on without warning, but there are a few common-sense practices you can use to greatly minimize your risk:

  • Install a battery-operated CO detector in your home and replace the batteries each spring and fall when you change your clocks. Rusyniak says, “[Carbon monoxide] is only detectable by carbon monoxide monitors. Because of this, everyone should have a CO detector on each floor of their house. If it goes off, leave your house and call your local fire department to investigate.”
  • Have your water heater, heating system and any other oil-, gas- or coal-burning appliances checked and serviced each year.
  • Never use a charcoal grill, generator or charcoal- or gasoline-burning device in your garage, basement or home or near an open window.
  • Never leave a vehicle running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
  • Never use a fireplace or stove that is not vented.
  • Never use a gas oven to heat your house.
  • See a doctor right away if you experience any of the early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

More: Keeping you safe: Detectors for your home

For Mark Schneider, owner of Pacific Aire, Inc. — a heating and air contractors company of in Ventura, California — an annual furnace checkup is a big sticking point. This major risk factor is one Schneider sees often in his line of work, where problems are created when furnace coils wear down and eventually crack the heat exchanger to create a carbon monoxide leak. Schneider says, “We recommend having a licensed HVAC technician clean and inspect your furnace once a year to be sure you are not at risk. The difficulty in finding these cracks is that the coils twist and turn, and without the proper tools, a tiny crack can become a bigger problem that can go undetected by an untrained eye.”

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