Seniors Are More Vulnerable to Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, Here’s How to Prevent It
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that can silently kill you, particularly in winter months when heating systems run throughout the cooler days and nights. It is found in fumes produced by automobiles, fires, furnaces, gas stoves, cooking ranges, charcoal grills, water heaters, space heaters and other heating systems. CO from these fumes can build up in places without adequate, fresh airflow. High concentrations of CO can cause death within minutes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that each year carbon monoxide poisoning sends roughly 50,000 people in America to the emergency room. Annually across the country, more than 400 people die from unintentional CO poisoning.1
Older adults with compromised health, such as breathing problems, heart disease or anemia, are more likely to fall ill from carbon monoxide exposure. Because the symptoms of CO poisoning may be similar to other illnesses including the flu and food poisoning, the condition can be hard to detect.
Common Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
When carbon monoxide builds up in the air, the body replaces the oxygen in red blood cells with carbon monoxide, which leads to unconsciousness, tissue damage and even death. Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include:
- Shortness of breath
How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Exposure2
- Install CO detectors near sleeping areas in your home. Follow the instructions to test the battery once a month and replace the battery every six months. Purchase a CO alarm that meets the Underwriters Laboratories standard. You may be able to purchase a combination CO and smoke alarm, or keep both installed separately in your home.
- If the carbon monoxide alarm sounds, leave the house immediately and call 911 or the fire department from your cellphone or neighbor’s house.
- If carbon monoxide buildup occurs in your home, do not return to the home until proper repairs are made and your utility company, fire department or other professional service provider deems it safe for you to return.
- Ensure that all appliances are properly installed to the manufacturer’s instructions and local building codes.
- Have your home’s heating systems, including chimneys and vents, regularly inspected and serviced. Annual service checks for corrosion, blockages and disconnections are recommended. Contact your local utility company about yearly checkups on all gas appliances including the furnace.
- Never use a gas appliance such as a range, oven or clothes dryer to heat your home.
- Do not use a fuel-burning space heater indoorsunless someone is awake to monitor the heater and keep fresh air flowing through doors and windows.
- Never burn charcoal indoors, and only use portable gas camp stoves and lanterns outside and never inside the home, garage, vehicle or tent.
- Do not leave your motor vehicle running inside the garage, even if the garage door is open.
- Never run any gas-powered engine, generator or pressure washer inside the garage, basement, crawlspace or any enclosed structure. Avoid using these devices within 20 feet of an open door, window or vent.
- Be aware that certain solvents like paint and varnish removers contain methylene chloride that can break down into carbon monoxide when inhaled. Work with solvents only in well-ventilated areas.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is preventable. As the colder months approach, safeguard the home from CO leaks and regularly check on the elderly and infants, who are most susceptible to falling ill from invisible, odorless CO fumes.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/Features/COpoisoning/.
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/co/faqs.htm.
About the Author
An award-winning journalist who has documented stories in nearly 20 countries, Beth Lueders is an author, writer and speaker who frequently reports on diverse topics, including aging and health issues for both U.S. and international corporations.