Ask a Public Health Nurse: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

PHN-logoBy Debra Eardley, DNP, RN, APHN-BC, assistant professor, Metropolitan State University.

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What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas often formed in the process of incomplete combustion of organic substances, including fuels. It is dangerous because it interferes with normal oxygen uptake for humans and other living organisms needing oxygen to live (MDH, 2014).

What are Sources of Carbon Monoxide?  

  • In general, CO is produced when any material burns.
  • More is produced when there isn’t enough oxygen for efficient burning.
  • Common sources of CO in homes include fuel-burning devices such as: furnaces, gas or kerosene space heaters, boilers, gas cooking stoves, water heaters, clothes dryers, fireplaces, charcoal grills, wood stoves, lawn mowers, power generators, camp stoves, motor vehicles and some power tools with internal combustion engines.
  • Smoking is another common source of CO that can negatively impact indoor air quality (MDH, 2014).

What is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?  

CO poisoning is the interruption of oxygen uptake from inhaling CO that has built up in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces, causing sudden illness and/or death to people and animals (CDC, 2014).

Why Do I Need to Know About Carbon Monoxide? 

  • Unintentional CO exposure accounts for an estimated 500 deaths in the United States each year.
  • Poisoning contributes annually to more than 2,000 deaths in the United States. In addition, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 8,000 to 15,000 people each year are examined or treated in hospitals for non-fire related
    CO poisoning.
  • Breathed over long periods of time, low concentrations of CO may also contribute to other illness (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MMWR, 56 (50)1309-1312; December 21, 2007).

Seven Tips to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning 

  1. Do have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year. Be sure your chimney smoke stack is free of ice build-up.
  2. CO-detectorsDo install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. If the detector sounds, leave your home immediately and call 911.
  3. Do seek prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseated.
  4. Don’t use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement or garage or near a window.
  5. Don’t run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open.
  6. Don’t burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn’t vented.
  7. Don’t heat your apartment or house with a gas oven (CDC, 2014).


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. Retrieved file://localhost/from, http/

Minnesota Department of Health. (2014). Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Your Home. Retrieved from,

PHN-RedCross copyPublic Health Nurses partner with state and federal epidemiologists and health experts to protect
and promote the public’s health. Some of the following information is retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). For more information, contact Debra Eardley, School of Nursing assistant professor, at
or 651-398-9730.