Carbon monoxide poisoning is an illness that occurs from breathing in carbon monoxide (CO) gas. It is a medical emergency and needs treatment right away.
CO is a colorless, odorless gas made when fuel burns. Fuels include wood, gasoline, coal, natural gas, and kerosene. Breathing in carbon monoxide fumes prevents the body from using oxygen normally. This can harm the brain, heart, and other organs.
Most carbon monoxide exposure happens in the winter. This is because the most common source of CO poisoning is an unvented space heater in the home. An unvented space heater uses fuel and indoor air to create heat. It vents the gases into the room, instead of outdoors. A space heater that is not installed right or not working correctly can release carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes into the room. It can use up much of the oxygen in the room.
Most space heaters use kerosene or natural gas for fuel. Newer models have oxygen sensors. These sensors shut off the heater when the oxygen level in the room falls below a certain level. Older models don’t have this safety feature. Because of these safety problems, some states ban unvented space heaters.
Carbon monoxide can also leak from home or camping appliances that use oil, wood, gas, or coal and are not working properly, such as:
Other sources of carbon monoxide include:
A child is more at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning if he or she lives in a house with any of these:
Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. They can include:
It may be CO poisoning if symptoms occur at home and not at school. Or it may be CO poisoning if more than 1 person in the home has these symptoms. This can lead to death.
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be like other health conditions, such as the flu and food poisoning. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may ask about recent exposure to fuel-burning appliances. A healthcare provider often diagnoses CO poisoning based on known exposure. He or she will give your child a physical exam. The physical exam may include a test of mental status. Your child may have blood tests to check carbon monoxide and oxygen levels.
Your child may also be placed on a heart monitor. This displays the heart rhythm. An electrocardiogram (ECG) may be done to check for damage to the heart. Your child may also have an imaging test such as a CT scan or MRI. This is to check for damage to the brain.
If your child has signs of CO poisoning:
Oxygen therapy is the main treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning. Your child may be given oxygen through a face mask right away. In some cases, a child may be treated in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.
A child may have long-lasting (permanent) damage to the brain or heart. This depends on the amount of CO exposure. Severe carbon monoxide poisoning can cause neurologic symptoms days or weeks later. This is known as delayed neurologic syndrome. In some cases, CO poisoning can lead to death.
You can protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning in these ways:
If your child has symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, move to a place with fresh air right away. Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS).
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider: