If there was ever an issue in need of an awareness week, it’s carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is extremely difficult to detect, with no smell, taste or colour. But if inhaled, it can cause very serious damage to your health and can even prove fatal.

Carbon monoxide is produced when certain fuels are burned incompletely. Many everyday substances are potentially hazardous to burn because carbon monoxide could be formed, including:

  • Wood and paper
  • Oil
  • Coal and charcoal
  • Kerosene, propane and butane

But it doesn’t stop there – carbon monoxide can also be produced by vehicle emissions (particularly when stopped with the engine running), by lit cigarettes (as if you needed another reason to quit smoking) and even burnt toast.

Nonetheless, carbon-based fuels are generally safe, and there are steps you can take to minimise your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The Chemical Properties of Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is generated by the partial oxidation of carbon-based substances: a lack of oxygen (O2) – as can occur when fuels burn in an enclosed space – causes the CO to be produced rather than carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon is also generated by this incomplete combustion, which you may observe as soot around or on faulty appliances.

Carbon monoxide gas is highly toxic because if it is inhaled, it binds to haemoglobin in blood, making less haemoglobin available to transport oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

The result is carbon monoxide poisoning, which has a range of possible signs and symptoms depending on the level of exposure.

The Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

It’s all too easy for adults to confuse carbon monoxide poisoning for the flu or food poisoning – or for students to mistake it for fresher’s flu. Years can go by without the underlying problem being addressed. This, of course, only serves to make things worse.

Symptoms can include:

  • Dizziness and drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Confusion and loss of concentration
  • Problems with hearing, vision, and walking
  • Respiratory problems

Carbon monoxide can also induce behavioural problems, a change of personality and even unconsciousness.

How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

As usual, prevention is much better than cure:

  • Fit an audible CO alarm so you are alerted even if asleep, and test it just as regularly as you do your standard smoke alarm
  • Ensure that all fuel-burning appliances and ventilation systems have been installed by a registered expert and that you commit to regular maintenance and servicing.
  • Make sure that all ventilation is properly working and free from blockages; ensure your chimney is regularly swept.
  • Do not take a barbecue (even when cool to the touch) inside a tent.

What to Do If You Get Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Seek medical attention immediately. Let your doctor know that you think you may have been poisoned and give them as much information as you can about the source of the poisoning and how long you suspect it’s been going on.

For more information about carbon monoxide, its risks and the precautions you might take, the CO Awareness site offers many helpful resources for everyone, from students to fishermen.