Stopping the “Invisible Killer”

Becki Willmer, CSN

Carbon monoxide is a deadly, odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas often referred to as the “invisible killer.” It is released whenever we burn fuels such as gasoline, wood, natural gas, and oil. This gas can build up when heating systems, gas appliances and vehicles, and generators are used or ventilated improperly.  Every year in the United States, carbon monoxide poisoning is responsible for more than 430 deaths and approximately 50,000 emergency department (ED) visits.

Some individuals are more affected by exposure to carbon monoxide than others. Infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with respiratory conditions or heart disease are more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is harmful because it deprives the heart, brain, and other vital organs of oxygen. Poisoning can occur from prolonged exposure to lower concentrations or brief exposure to higher concentrations of carbon monoxide.

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning may include headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, weakness, and confusion. Breathing in carbon monoxide can lead to clumsiness, blacking out, and even death. Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms can easily be mistaken for the flu or the common cold, especially during winter months. Unlike the flu or the common cold, however, carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms may lessen after you leave the affected area.

The good news is that carbon monoxide poisoning can be prevented.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Follow these safety tips recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep you and your loved ones safe this winter and throughout the year:

  • Install battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors around the home (on every level and in a central location outside of sleeping areas)
  • Test carbon monoxide detectors once a month and change the battery once a year
  • Have heating systems and fuel-burning appliances inspected by professionals every year
  • Generators and other gasoline-powered equipment should only be used in well-ventilated outdoor areas and away from windows, vents, and doors
  • Never use your oven or stove to heat your home
  • Never run the engine of a vehicle in a garage and make sure the exhaust pipe of the vehicle is clear of snow and debris
  • Never use gas or charcoal grills indoors or in partially-enclosed areas
  • Make sure vents for the furnace, dryer, stove, and fireplace are clear during and after storms


Carbon Monoxide | National Fire Protection Association

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning | CDC

Be Ready! Winter Weather Infographic | CDC


Text from mini-infographic: 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is:

  • Odorless
  • Colorless
  • Deadly

Every year in the U.S., unintentional CO poisoning is responsible for approximately:

  • 50,000 emergency department visits
  • 438 deaths

CO poisoning increases in winter months due to improper ventilation of:

  • Heating systems
  • Generators
  • Fireplaces

Symptoms are “flu-like” and include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Clumsiness
Child Safety Topics
Home Safety
Poison Prevention