Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Children

Over 20,000  people are seen in the emergency room every year due to carbon monoxide exposure. Of those 20,000 people, children ages 4 and under are the most likely age group to be seen. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common cause of accidental poisoning-related deaths and is often called "the silent killer."

What causes carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, colorless, tasteless, odorless gas that is produced from the incomplete burning of fuels that contain carbon. This includes wood, charcoal, gasoline, coal, natural gas, or kerosene. Breathing carbon monoxide fumes decreases the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Low levels of oxygen can lead to cell death, including cells in the vital organs, such as the brain and heart. People with existing health problems, such as anemia, heart disease, and lung disease are especially vulnerable, as are unborn babies, infants, children, pregnant women, and older adults.

What are some sources of carbon monoxide?

Most CO exposures occur in the winter months. The most common source of residential CO-related poisoning is unvented, supplemental heaters. An unvented supplemental heater is a type of space heater that uses indoor air for the heating process and vents the gases produced in the heating process out into the room. A space heater that is improperly installed or not functioning properly can introduce carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes into the room and use up much of the oxygen in the room.

Most supplemental heaters of this type use kerosene or natural gas for fuel. While newer models have oxygen sensors that shut off the heater when the oxygen level in the room falls below a certain level, older models do not have such safety features. Because of these safety problems, unvented space heaters have been banned in several states.

Other common sources of CO include the following:

  • Auto exhaust

  • Indoor charcoal grills

  • Tobacco smoke

  • Faulty fireplaces and chimneys

  • Fires

  • Fuel burning equipment such as gasoline engines, gas logs, and gas space heaters

  • Faulty gas water heaters or clothes dryers

  • Gas appliances and heaters in cabins or campers, pools, and spas

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

The following are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Weakness or clumsiness

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Loss of hearing

  • Blurry vision

  • Disorientation or confusion

  • Seizures

  • Loss of consciousness or coma

  • Cardiac arrest

  • Respiratory failure

  • Death

Carbon monoxide poisoning mimics many common illnesses, such as the flu and food poisoning. If more than one person has similar symptoms, carbon monoxide poisoning should be suspected. If symptoms occur in certain locations such as work or at home, carbon monoxide should also be considered.

Depending on the length and severity of exposure, carbon monoxide fumes may cause  permanent damage to the brain or heart and can even result in death. Seek emergency medical care immediately.

First-aid for carbon monoxide poisoning

If your child or other family members have any symptoms of CO poisoning, stay calm but act quickly:

  • Leave the area and get fresh air immediately. Turn off the carbon monoxide source only if you can do so safely without endangering yourself or others.

  • Call 911 or your local emergency medical service (EMS).

  • If your child has stopped breathing, start CPR and do not stop until your child breathes on his or her own or someone else can take over. If you can, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, perform CPR for one minute and then call 911.

Emergency medical treatment may include oxygen therapy, blood tests, chest X-ray, and a heart and neurological evaluation.

How can you protect against carbon monoxide poisoning?

According to the CDC, more than 400 people die unintentionally each year in the U.S. from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Important steps to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and inspected before each heating season. Have other fuel burning appliances checked regularly.

  • Use nonelectrical space heaters only in well-ventilated areas.

  • Do not start or idle gas lawn mowers, cars, trucks, or other vehicles in an enclosed area, even with the garage doors open.

  • Vent fuel-burning appliances outside whenever possible.

  • Do not ever use a charcoal grill inside your home, garage, tent, or camper.

  • Do not use portable heaters or lanterns while sleeping in enclosed areas, such as tents, campers, and other vehicles. This is especially important at high altitudes, where the risk of CO poisoning is increased.

  • Read and follow manufacturer instructions and precautions that come with any fuel-burning device.

  • Do not ever use a gas oven for heat inside your home.

  • Use an approved carbon monoxide detector with an audible alarm inside your home.

  • When gasoline-powered generators are used to supply electricity, care should be taken to keep the generator a safe distance away from the home.