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What is carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, colorless, tasteless, odorless gas that is produced from the incomplete burning of fuels that contain carbon, such as wood, charcoal, gasoline, coal, natural gas or kerosene. Breathing carbon monoxide fumes decreases the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Low levels of oxygen can lead to cell death, including cells in the vital organs such as the brain and heart.

More than 200 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, and thousands of others develop symptoms that require emergency medical attention. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common cause of accidental poisoning-related deaths and is often called "the silent killer." Unborn babies, infants, children, and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning. 

How we care for carbon monoxide poisoning

The Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Boston Children's offers multidisciplinary evaluation and management of children with known or suspected exposure to environmental toxins, including carbon monoxide. Our team provides comprehensive, coordinated services if your child has been exposed to carbon monoxide. Services provided include:

  • patient evaluation: complete history and physical exam
  • laboratory testing
  • treatment provided by experienced pediatric environmental medicine toxicologists
  • prevention: guidance and practical advice for reducing and eliminating exposures
  • telephone and/or written consultations to treating primary care providers
  • 24 hour telephone access: 888-CHILD-14

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning | Symptoms & Causes

What are some sources of carbon monoxide?

The majority of CO exposures occur in the winter months. The most common source of residential CO-related poisoning is un-vented or faulty furnaces and heaters. Increased risk occurs anytime these products are operated in enclosed areas with poor ventilation. Other common sources of CO include the following:

  • auto exhaust
  • indoor charcoal grills
  • tobacco smoke
  • faulty fireplaces and chimneys
  • fires
  • fuel burning equipment such as gasoline engines, gas logs, and gas space heaters
  • faulty gas water heaters or clothes dryers
  • gas appliances and heaters in cabins or campers, pools, and spas

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

The following are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Some of the most common symptoms may include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • weakness or clumsiness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • loss of hearing
  • blurry vision
  • disorientation or confusion
  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness or coma
  • cardiac arrest
  • respiratory failure
  • death

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning | Diagnosis & Treatments

How is carbon monoxide poisoning treated?

First-aid for carbon monoxide poisoning

If your child or other family members have any symptoms of CO poisoning, stay calm but act quickly.

  • Leave the area and get fresh air immediately. Turn off the carbon monoxide source only if you can do so safely without endangering yourself or others.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS).
  • If your child has stopped breathing, start CPR and do not stop until your child breathes on his/her own or someone else can take over. If you can, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, perform CPR for one minute and then call 911.

Further treatment for carbon monoxide exposure will be determined by your child's physician. Emergency medical treatment may include oxygen therapy, blood tests, chest X-ray, and a heart and neurological evaluation.

Protect against carbon monoxide poisoning

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 200 people each year die in the US from carbon monoxide poisoning that comes from fuel-burning appliances such as space heaters, furnaces, ranges, and water heaters. Burning charcoal inside a house, garage, vehicle, or tent is also responsible for carbon monoxide-related deaths. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the cause of several thousand visits to hospital emergency rooms each year.

  • Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and inspected before each heating season. Have other fuel burning appliances checked regularly.
  • Use non-electrical space heaters only in well-ventilated areas.
  • Do not start or idle gas lawn mowers, cars, trucks, or other vehicles in an enclosed area, even with the garage doors open.
  • Vent fuel-burning appliances outside whenever possible.
  • Do not ever use a charcoal grill inside your home, garage, tent, or camper.
  • Do not use portable heaters or lanterns while sleeping in enclosed areas such as tents, campers, and other vehicles. This is especially important at high altitudes, where the risk of CO poisoning is increased.
  • Read and follow manufacturer instructions and precautions that come with any fuel-burning device.
  • Do not ever use a gas oven for heat inside your home.
  • Use an approved carbon monoxide detector with an audible alarm inside your home.
  • When gasoline-powered generators are used to supply electricity, care should be taken to keep the generator a safe distance away from the home.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning | Programs & Services