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Carbon Monoxide: A Winter Killer

CDC Says Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Peaks in December and January
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 20, 2007 -- It has no color. It has no odor. It has no taste. It kills.

The mystery poison: carbon monoxide or CO. It's a gas given off by gas furnaces, cars, charcoal grills, propane stoves, and portable generators. Every year, the CDC says, it sends at least 15,000 Americans to the emergency room.

At least 439 people die of unintentional, nonfire-related carbon monoxide poisoning every year, new CDC statistics show. But that's very likely an undercount.

Only 13 states require doctors to report carbon monoxide poisoning. Autopsies do not routinely test for it. And since the symptoms can be confused with many diseases -- particularly among the elderly -- coroners don't always suspect it.

People suffering carbon monoxide poisoning often don't realize it. That's because the symptoms -- headache, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and nausea -- are common complaints.

The new CDC report shows that most accidental carbon monoxide poisonings happen in January, and the second most in December. The fewest are in the summer months of July and August.

From 1999 to 2004, Nebraska had the highest rate of carbon monoxide poisoning. California had the lowest rate.

Carbon monoxide poisoning victims are most likely to be elderly and more likely to be men than women (probably because men are more likely to work with fuel-burning tools or appliances).

To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, the CDC recommends:

  • Every year, have a qualified technician check your heating systems, water heaters, and other gas-, oil-, or coal-burning appliances.
  • Install battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors in homes, and change the batteries when you change the clocks for daylight-saving time.
  • Seek medical attention if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning is the cause of your dizziness or nausea.
  • Never use generators, camp stoves, charcoal grills, or any other gas- or oil-burning device inside the home. Never use these devices outside the home near a window.
  • Never run a motor vehicle inside the garage, even if the garage door is open.
  • Never burn anything in a fireplace or stove that is not vented to the outside.
  • Never heat your house with a gas oven.

The CDC report appears in the Dec. 21 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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