Carbon Monoxide ("CO") Poisoning

carbon monoxide

Carbon Monoxide ("CO") is a silent killer that cannot be detected visually, produces no odor, is tasteless, and virtually goes undetected. 

The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that Carbon Monoxide is the cause of thousands of death annually and is the leading cause of poisoning death in the United States.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or a local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

Carbon Monoxide is a chemical produced from the incomplete burning of natural gas or other products containing Carbon and can originate from (among others):

  • Anything that burns coal, gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, or wood
  • Car engines
  • Charcoal grills (charcoal should never be burned indoors)
  • Indoor and portable heating systems, portable propane heaters
  • Stoves (indoor and camp stoves)
  • Water heaters that use natural gas

Carbon Monoxide, upon ingesetion, replaces the oxygen in your bloodstream leaving your heart, brain, and body to become starved of oxygen.

Those at high risk include young children, the elderly, people with lung or heart disease, people who are at high altitudes, and smokers; as well, CO can harm fetuses.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning may include:

  • Breathing problems, including no breathing, shortness of breath, or rapid breathing
  • Chest pain (may occur suddenly in people with angina)
  • Convulsions, shock, or coma
  • Confusion, dizziness, drowsiness, fainting, loss of consciousness
  • Fatigue, general weakness, aches, muscle weakness
  • Headache
  • Hyperactivity,rapid/abornmal heartbeat, irritability
  • Impaired judgement
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting

Animals can also be poisoned by carbon monoxide. People who have pets at home may notice that their animals become weak or unresponsive from Carbon Monoxide exposure. Often, the pets will get sick before humans.

Home Care:  If the person breathed in the poison, immediately move him or her to fresh air. Seek immediate medical help.


Install a Carbon Monoxide detector on each floor of your home. Place an additional detector near any major gas-burning appliances (such as a furnace or water heater).

Many Carbon Monoxide poisonings occur in the winter months when furnaces, gas fireplaces, and portable heaters are used and windows are closed. Have heaters and gas-burning appliances regularly inspected to make sure they are safe to use.

Before Calling Emergency

The following information is helpful for emergency assistance (however, DO NOT DELAY in calling for help if this information is not immediately available).

  • Person's age, weight, and condition (for example, is the person awake or alert?)
  • How long they may have been exposed to the Carbon Monoxide, if known

Poison Control

Call 911 for your local responders or call I 1-800-222-1222 to speak with a local poison control center to speak with experts on poisons. This is a free and confidential service and is available  24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The health care provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The person may receive:

  • Airway support, including oxygen, breathing tube through the mouth (intubation), and breathing machine (ventilator)
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Chest x-ray
  • EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
  • Fluids through a vein (intravenous or IV)
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (high-pressure oxygen given in a special chamber)
  • Medicines to treat symptoms

Outlook (Prognosis)

Carbon Monoxide poisoning can cause death. For those who survive, recovery is slow. How well a person does depends on the amount and length of exposure to the carbon monoxide. Permanent brain damage may occur.

The Centers For Disease Control's website has additional information on CO poisoning.