What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real health hazard. Colourless, odourless, tasteless and non-irritating, carbon monoxide (CO) is a potentially fatal toxic gas. This is why you need to know how to recognise the symptoms of CO poisoning. From simple headaches to unconsciousness that can lead to death, these symptoms are numerous and potentially very serious.

Various symptoms, the severity of which depends on the duration of exposure

Carbon monoxide gas causes multiple deadly poisonings each year: in England and Wales, there are around 60 fatalities annually, according to the NHS.

These can often occur during the winter, when our home heaters are running at full speed and ventilation levels are lower, as we tend to keep our windows shut.

Carbon monoxide emissions are the main cause of poisoning in industrialised countries, so it’s vital that we know the relevant symptoms. Carbon monoxide is not only harmful to the body (in both humans and other mammals). It also diffuses quickly in the surrounding environment. Also, it doesn’t rise like smoke, but instead mixes with the ambient air in a room.

Multiple symptoms that should raise the alarm

So, what happens in the event of exposure to this poisonous gas? The moment it is inhaled by a person, carbon monoxide begins to replace oxygen in the blood.

This process is rapid, but before the first symptoms become visible, it’s impossible to know that it’s taking place. This is due to the fact that CO has no smell or taste, and does not irritate the eyes or throat.

However, the initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning appear rapidly:

  • Headache

  • Chest pain

  • Visual disturbances

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Dizziness

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Loss of consciousness

These issues are far from trivial, especially during winter in a closed and heated room.

Every minute counts with carbon monoxide poisoning

As soon as any of these symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning appear, especially if the heating is on, you should be highly concerned, and suspect that carbon monoxide is the cause.

The longer the exposure to the gas, the more serious the adverse health effects, so don’t waste time. These symptoms present differently in different people and situations, so you shouldn’t look for the symptoms to appear in a certain order, or assume that they’re nothing serious.

It’s estimated that in an enclosed space, without any action being taken, carbon monoxide poisoning can kill a person within an hour. This makes it one of the most dangerous gases in our modern lifestyles.

The main causes of accidents and poisonings linked to carbon monoxide are poor evacuation of combustion products, lack of ventilation in the room where the appliance is placed, and poor maintenance of heating appliances.

How do I avoid carbon monoxide poisoning?

In order to avoid experiencing the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, it is essential to understand CO emanation, what it is and how to prevent it.

This toxic gas can be produced from the combustion of wood (logs, pellets, etc.), gas (butane, propane, natural gas, etc.), coal, petroleum, gasoline or fuel oil. Heaters are, therefore, most often involved in emitting carbon monoxide, although they are not the only appliances that can be the source. Generators, stoves, boilers, water heaters or cars can also cause carbon monoxide emissions.

Limit the risk of incomplete combustion by maintaining your devices

Fortunately, not all combustion produces carbon monoxide (nor the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning).

Carbon monoxide being released is the result of incomplete combustion, which can result from poor management or inappropriate use of combustion appliances or fuels, or a lack of maintenance of the relevant exhaust ducts.

It’s therefore strongly recommended, in addition to limiting the risks associated with carbon monoxide, to properly maintain your home appliances and heating appliances, especially the older ones.

Install a carbon monoxide detector

If you have a heater or device that could emit carbon monoxide, it’s useful to equip yourself with a CO gas detector to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning in the home. In addition to ensuring peace of mind, a detector will also warn you at the slightest passing of the safe CO threshold with a loud alarm.

Install the detector close to the potential CO source, preferably on a wall, at eye level and between 1 and 3 metres from the potential source. CO detectors require little maintenance, but do check the alarm function (and battery health, if relevant) regularly.

Of course, the poisoning symptoms mentioned above also serve as an indication that CO is present. However, it’s better to avoid experiencing these at all, and to be warned as quickly as possible about emissions of carbon monoxide in your home.

The CO detector is the only way to detect the gas before the first symptoms of poisoning appear.

What should you do in case of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Once the first symptoms have been observed and the link with carbon monoxide has been established, it’s vital to act quickly. These are several recommendations to fight against carbon monoxide poisoning (before experiencing symptoms):

  • As soon as possible, ventilate the premises as much as possible by opening the doors and windows wide

*When possible, turn off combustion appliances in the building (because the gas could be coming from your own home, but also from a neighbouring home)

  • Evacuate the premises as quickly as possible; no occupant should remain exposed to the gas

  • Then call the emergency services on 999

  • Wait for the advice of a heating or firefighting professional before returning to the affected premises

By following these guidelines, you should be able to limit the symptoms and risks of carbon monoxide poisoning. But of course, don’t hesitate to install a carbon monoxide detector in your home, as they can save lives.

No one is safe from carbon monoxide poisoning. While there are many methods of preventing this type of poisoning, vigilance remains essential, regardless of the type of heating you use. Especially in winter, stay on the lookout for the various symptoms that are specific to CO poisoning.