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Sanford Health Q&A: Carbon monoxide poisoning

By Dr. Tanya Skager

Is carbon monoxide poisoning more likely in the winter?

While carbon monoxide poisoning can occur any time of the year, it is more prevalent in winter because carbon monoxide gas can come from fuel-burning sources such as fireplaces, wood stoves, space heaters and gas-fueled water heaters, ovens, and dryers. Exhaust from a vehicle left running in your garage can also be dangerous, particularly if the garage doors are closed. Blocked chimneys can push fumes indoors. Well-insulated new homes with tight seals and inadequate fresh air intake can also trap carbon monoxide inside.

How would I know if I’m inhaling carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide levels in your body can become deadly within minutes and you won’t see it, smell it or taste it. Headaches, dizziness and nausea are common symptoms. As carbon monoxide builds up in the blood, confusion, drowsiness, fast breathing, fast heartbeat, possible chest pain, vision problems and even seizures can result.

Is carbon monoxide poisoning always sudden?

No, a low level of poisoning can lead to heart problems and brain damage over time. If you frequently have headaches, ongoing shortness of breath and nausea when inside but feel better in fresh air, ask people living or working with you if they’ve noticed similar symptoms. Also, keep an eye on your pets; they can also become sick from ongoing low levels.

What should I do if I think I am being exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning?

If you have sudden symptoms, leave the house immediately. Staying may result in your losing consciousness and being unable to get out. Call 911 after you leave the building, or go to the nearest emergency room. If you’ve had ongoing symptoms and suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, make an appointment with your doctor. A blood test can measure whether or not you have carbon monoxide poisoning. With quick treatment, most people recover within a few days.

How can I prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?

Check chimneys and vents regularly to make sure they aren’t blocked or leaking. Have a professional clean, inspect and service chimneys and vents before the heating season each year as well as any additional fuel-burning appliances you have. Never use gas-based heaters in small, enclosed areas. Don’t use a gas oven to heat your home. Don’t use a gas or charcoal grill indoors. Don’t close the fireplace or stove damper before the fire is completely out. Don’t leave vehicles running in the garage — even if the garage doors are open. Install carbon monoxide detectors near sleeping areas in your home. Detectors won’t prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, but they will alert you and help you get out safely.

Skager is a board-certified family medicine physician, sees patients at Sanford Health Dickinson Clinic. Dr. Skager completed her undergraduate degree and medical degree at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and then did her residency at the UND Center for Family Medicine in Bismarck. To request an appointment, call 701-456-6144.