Winter is peak season for carbon monoxide poisoning

November 29, 2019 | Dr. Linda Yau discusses carbon monoxide risks

By Dr. Linda Yau, Foxhall Internists
Contributing Writer,

WASHINGTON — I recently heard a very scary story from my friend: Her father had called her at work saying he was not feeling well, and she heard an alarm blaring in the background. She made out the words “carbon monoxide” from the alarm system. and immediately told her father to open the windows, then called 911.

She rushed to her father’s home and found emergency services there tending to her father, who had weakness and headache. It turns out her father had accidentally left the car idling in the garage after driving it home. The car exhaust built up a high level of carbon monoxide, which seeped from the garage to the rest of the house. A neighbor had opened all the windows. My friend was very thankful for the alarm she had installed earlier.

A carbon monoxide detector can be a life-saving device: Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless.  It cannot be detected any other way.

Carbon monoxide is a compound with one carbon atom and one oxygen atom (“mono” meaning “one”).  Hemoglobin — the substance in our red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout our bloodstreams — prefers to bind to carbon monoxide, rather than oxygen, whenever it is available. That can result in a lack of oxygen to the brain and the heart, which can cause death.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is most common in the winter, when heating systems are on and people with keyless ignition systems start cars in enclosed spaces. It can also occur if a fuel-burning device, such as a generator, is used in the home. Electrical heaters and appliances do not give off carbon monoxide.

To prevent exposure, be sure to always turn off cars in garages. Never use a generator or other fuel-burning appliance in the home unless it is vented properly: Generators should be placed at least 25 feet away from the house. Gas heating systems and gas burning appliances should be checked and maintained yearly.

Carbon monoxide detectors should be in every home — ideally on every floor of the house, but especially on the floor where the bedrooms are, so they can wake people if necessary. Don’t put them near the furnace: That’s usually in the basement, where no one can hear the alarm.

The most common symptoms of poisoning by carbon monoxide are headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, weakness and shortness of breath. These are the symptoms of many illnesses, so unless the patient or family tells their doctor about possible carbon monoxide exposure, people can be misdiagnosed with, say, flu or other viruses. If there is any suspicion at all of carbon monoxide poisoning, tell the health care providers immediately.

If someone is unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning and not breathing, call 911 and start CPR immediately.

The recent record snowfalls in the D.C. area may have created mountains of snow which can block furnace vents and build up carbon monoxide. Washer and dryer vents also need to be cleared of snow.

As the cold weather kicks in this winter, be sure to properly maintain heating systems, place carbon monoxide detectors on each floor of your home, and never use a fuel burning device (such as a car or a generator) in an enclosed area. The 500 deaths each year from carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States should not happen.

Dr. Linda Yau is a physician with Foxhall Internists in D.C., who writes a blog for the Lady Docs Corner Cafe. The website was started by a group of health professionals from the Washington area — all of them women — who get together on a regular basis for exercise, food, inspiration and conversation.

The “Lady Docs” represent medical specialties ranging from pediatrics to dentistry to gynecology. Some are in private practice, some teach and a few have branched out of medicine to other fields. All are determined to not just “talk the talk” about a healthy lifestyle to their patients, but to “walk the walk” by setting a good example.

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