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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Facts and Definition of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

  • Carbon monoxide (sometimes referred to as CO) is a colorless, odorless gas produced by burning material containing carbon. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause brain damage and death. You can't see it, smell it, or taste it; but carbon monoxide can kill you.
  • Because carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas, it is known as the "silent killer." 
  • Carbon monoxide is produced by common household appliances. When not properly ventilated, carbon monoxide emitted by these appliances can build up. See the list of appliances that can emit carbon monoxide in this article under Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Causes.
  • Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning such as headaches, nausea, and fatigue, are often mistaken for the flu because the deadly gas goes undetected in a home. Prolonged exposure can lead to brain damage and even death.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Causes

Carbon monoxide is formed when organic compounds burn. The most common sources are motor vehicle exhaust, smoke from fires, engine fumes, and nonelectric heaters. Carbon monoxide poisoning is often associated with malfunctioning or obstructed exhaust systems and with suicide attempts.

Sources of carbon monoxide:

  • Gas water heaters
  • Kerosene space heaters
  • Charcoal grills
  • Propane heaters and stoves
  • Gasoline and diesel powered generators
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Propane-fueled forklifts
  • Gasoline powered concrete saws
  • Indoor tractor pulls
  • Boats engines
  • Spray paint, solvents, degreasers, and paint removers
  • Smoke inhalation from a wildfire

Risks for exposure to carbon monoxide include

  • Children riding in the back of enclosed pickup trucks (particularly high risk)
  • Industrial workers at pulp mills, steel foundries, and plants producing formaldehyde or coke (a hard grey fuel)
  • Personnel at fire scenes
  • Using heating sources or electric generators during power outages
  • Those working indoors with combustion engines or combustible gases
  • Swimming near or under the stern or swim-step of a boat with the boat engine running
  • Back drafting when a boat is operated at a high bow angle
  • Mooring next to a boat that is running a generator or engine
  • Improper boat ventilation
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/17/2017

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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and Smoke Inhalation Symptoms

Carbon monoxide is one of the byproducts from burning items and other materials during a fire; and it's the leading cause of death from smoke inhalation due to a fire. Even cigarette smoke is a source of carbon monoxide. Signs and symptoms that you've inhaled too much smoke include:

  1. Cough
  2. Shortness of breath
  3. Hoarseness or noisy breathing
  4. Irritated eyes

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Toxicity, Carbon Monoxide »

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas produced by incomplete combustion of carbonaceous material.

Read More on Medscape Reference »


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