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First Aid: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, the Silent Killer

Medically reviewed by Mike Kenneth Go Doratan, MD · General Surgery · The Medical City Ortigas

Written by Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD · Updated Dec 07, 2022

First Aid: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, the Silent Killer

Carbon monoxide poisoning is more common than many people think. Because carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas, it often goes unnoticed until it is too late. To make matters worse, there are many common household sources of carbon monoxide that your family may be easily exposed to. Learn more about this silent killer and how to treat it in an emergency.

How Does Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Happen?

Carbon monoxide poisoning happens when a person breathes in high levels of carbon monoxide in a closed space where fresh air can’t get in.

This usually happens in smoke from a fire, cars left running inside indoor parkings, gas furnaces not working correctly, charcoal grills, gas powered generators.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of incomplete combustion, which often occurs when something burns with only a little bit of oxygen present. CO is let off by burning wood, coal, trash or gasoline. Exhaust fumes from cars, stoves, gas ranges, generators and heating systems also have carbon monoxide. Even smoking cigarettes releases carbon monoxide, both for the smoker and as secondhand smoke.

Certain occupations, such as firefighters and vehicle mechanics, may be frequently exposed to CO. It is important to wear the proper clothing and equipment if you expect to be exposed to carbon monoxide to prevent CO poisoning.

Many people have accidentally poisoned themselves doing simple things such as sitting in their car or garage while the engine is running or cooking without proper ventilation. They may mistake headaches from carbon monoxide exposure as normal occurrences, as their symptoms improve once they get away from the source of CO.

Signs and Symptoms To Watch Out For

Depending on the amount of exposure to carbon monoxide, symptoms of CO poisoning can be experienced in a matter of minutes. The earliest and most common symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, and chest pain.

Confusion and loss of consciousness also occur once the brain becomes deprived of oxygen. Some people may fall unconscious before noticing the other signs and symptoms. It is easy to mistake this as heavy sleep or drunkenness.

Other severe signs and symptoms include:

Prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide can lead to seizures and death due to suffocation in as short as a few hours. Because carbon monoxide can cause a fairly quick and unsuspecting death, it has been dubbed the silent killer.

carbon monoxide poisoning

First Aid Treatment

If you or someone you know suddenly shows signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, it is important to get fresh air. You should also immediately find the source of the carbon monoxide. Open windows or doors to allow the carbon monoxide to dissipate from the area. Turn off appliances or put out any fires or gas stoves.

Severe carbon monoxide poisoning is a medical emergency, especially for children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing lung conditions. Contact your local emergency care services for treatment right away.

Aside from smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors in your home and workspaces can prevent accidental poisoning.

Key Takeaways

In summary, carbon monoxide poisoning is a silent killer. Despite being toxic, this gas is very common in the environment.
Household exposure is often due to cars, burning coal, wood, or trash, and gas stoves and appliances. Cigarette smoke also contains carbon monoxide, making smoking and secondhand smoke another source.
If you or someone you know is experiencing headaches, nausea, or loss of consciousness after exposure to any of these things, it may be due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Talk to a doctor or contact emergency services right away for treatment.

Learn more about First Aid here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Mike Kenneth Go Doratan, MD

General Surgery · The Medical City Ortigas

Written by Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD · Updated Dec 07, 2022

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