Don't Use Your Heater or Fireplace Before Reading These Life-Saving Tips | Rounds With Dr. E

Don't risk getting sick — or worse — from poorly maintained or ventilated heater.

Don't Use Your Heater or Fireplace Before Reading These Life-Saving Tips | Rounds With Dr. E

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is no laughing matter (that's nitric oxide laughing gas for those of you who love frequenting the dentist). As people are heading inside for the fall and turning on their heaters and fireplaces, we may all be at risk. Carbon monoxide gas is both odorless and colorless; therefore, learning what symptoms to heed may save your life. Truly, carbon monoxide poisoning can kill not only you and your family but also your lovable furry friends.



According to the CDC, more than 400 people die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning (not related to fires) yearly in our country. More than 20,000 visit the ER for it. Carbon monoxide is produced by burning wood and fuels such as gasoline, propane and charcoal. In fact, in addition to both gas and wood-burning fireplaces, many of our common household fuel-burning appliances such as water heaters, gas stoves and ovens, furnaces and boilers, and clothes dryers can be the source of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, particularly if not well maintained and vented. Be sure all these appliances and spaces in your home are up to date on maintenance and the areas are properly ventilated.


As the concentration of carbon monoxide accumulates in the air, it builds up in your bloodstream, replacing the normal oxygen in the red blood cells and impeding its delivery to your tissues, causing dangerous damage.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poising include:

  • Headache (most common)
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting (I hope I didn't just freak many of you out with these common and subtle symptoms)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

If everyone in your household has similar symptoms (in addition to your pet seeming ill) and your symptoms resolve when you are out of your house, consider the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning.

What to Do If You Suspect CO Poisoning

If you think you or someone is suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, quickly open all windows and attempt to get into fresh air while calling emergency services. A simple blood test can determine if you have carbon monoxide poisoning, and oxygen treatment through a face mask or a breathing tube can be lifesaving. For those of you who love to check your oxygen level with one of those pulse oximeter devices that you place on one of your fingers, sadly these are not helpful in determining if you have carbon monoxide poisoning.


For those of you who live in houses with attached garages, never leave your car running (even if the garage door is open). Sadly, if this leads to death, running the engine in an enclosed garage or by siphoning the exhaust gas into the car with a hose is an example of dying from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In addition, methylene chloride solvent found in paint and varnish removal products can be a source of carbon monoxide poisoning. Safely use them outdoors or in well-ventilated areas.

Fortunately, carbon monoxide poisoning can be easily prevented by installing carbon monoxide detectors with alarms throughout your house, preferably within 10 feet of every bedroom. In fact, since carbon monoxide gas is odorless and colorless, these carbon monoxide detectors are particularly helpful in protecting all of us while sleeping or intoxicated and therefore unaware of any symptoms. In addition, as fetal blood cells take up carbon monoxide quicker than adult red blood cells, pregnant people need to be particularly careful and ensure that their CO detectors are working.

Perhaps a chore every fall (like the spring cleaning every spring) is to make sure that all of your fuel-burning appliances are maintained and properly vented. Responsibly ensure that your carbon monoxide detectors (as well as your smoke detectors) are properly functioning. In fact, as they should be checked at least twice yearly, add checking the carbon monoxide and smoke detectors to your spring cleaning chores as well.

By Marc Eisenberg

Dr. Marc Sabin Eisenberg, M.D., F.A.C.C. is an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. He is co-author of the book "Am I Dying?!: A Complete Guide to Your Symptoms and What to Do Next" and co-host of the "Am I Dying?!" podcast, which provides light-hearted advice for the hypochondriac in all of us. He writes the "Rounds With Dr. E" column for

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