Winter safety goes beyond ice and freezing temps: Tips to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning - Winter-safety tipsOld Man Winter has been kind to New England this year. Less snow and warmer temperatures have been the norm in recent weeks. But don’t let moderate snow fall and unseasonable temperatures fool you. Protecting your family from carbon monoxide (also known as CO) poisoning is of utmost importance, experts say.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide often called the silent killer, is responsible for more than 20,000 visit the emergency room and more than 4,000 hospitalizations. Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, making leaks and buildups difficult to notice.

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide enters the air through a variety sources like car exhaust, indoor charcoal grills, furnaces and other devices powered by fossil fuels. Complicating its detection even more, the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning resemble those of flu, cold or infection. A ringing in the ears, headache, nausea, weakness and/or dizziness all could indicate that a person is being poisoned by carbon monoxide. Because these symptoms are often associated with less serious illnesses, many people who are overexposed to carbon monoxide mistakenly think they’re catching a seasonal bug. In many cases, the affected person will lie down or rest to feel better. Some never wake up.

Exposure to carbon monoxide can be especially problematic for young children. Because kids have faster heartbeats and accelerated breathing rates, carbon monoxide can spread through their bodies quickly and poison them in less time than it takes to affect adults.

The Boston Children’s Hospital Poison Control and Prevention Center recommends taking the following precautions to protect your family from carbon monoxide this winter.

Carbon monoxide poisoning - carbon monoxide detector

Install a carbon-monoxide detector on each floor of your home

A lot of people assume that one carbon-monoxide detector is adequate for the whole house, but, like smoke detectors, experts say every floor of a building should be fitted with a battery-powered or hardwired carbon-monoxide detector. Battery-powered models are as reliable as the wired ones, as long as the batteries are checked regularly and replaced at least once a year.

Change your heating filters before the cold weather starts

Experts suggest homeowners change the filters on their heaters before winter begins, so the air they heat their homes with is as clean as possible when daily use becomes necessary. It’s also a good idea to have a private contractor or gas company employee check your heating system annually to make sure there are no leaks and that any old or deteriorating parts can be replaced before they become a problem.

Shovel the venting areas outside your home

Natural gas is used to run a lot of furnaces and clothes dryers, which emit carbon monoxide that is then vented outdoors. But if snow accumulates in front of these ventilation areas the carbon monoxide may not escape into the air properly, sending it right back into the house. When shoveling a driveway or sidewalk, always clear out any ventilation hoses or grates around your home to make sure gases intended to go outside get there.

Carbon monoxide poisoning - pets can shpw signs before peopleCheck your pets

Animals are susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning as well, sometimes more quickly than humans. If your dog or cat is acting sluggish, is unusually hard to awaken or seems sick, you may want to get the animal some fresh air, check your carbon-monoxide detectors and open a window just in case.

Never pre-warm a vehicle indoors

When the temperature drops to single digits, it’s tempting to run the car for a few minutes before you get in it, giving it plenty of time to warm up. But if you park your car in a garage, the risks associated with pre-warming far outweigh the convenience. While it’s doubtful anyone would purposely run their vehicle for anything longer than a few minutes in a small space, people occasionally lose track of time in the rush to get ready.

A few moments of absent-mindedness can easily lead to a car pumping out dangerous levels of toxic exhaust in a non-ventilated area. This is especially dangerous if the garage is attached to a home because the carbon monoxide then has the potential to quickly seep into the rest of the house.

Read more about common, seasonal illnesses and how to stay healthy this winter.