From catching the flu to pulling a muscle while shoveling snow, the winter months present a host of hazards. One danger that rises during the cold weather is a direct result of trying to warm up and beat the winter blues: carbon monoxide poisoning from heaters or fireplaces.

Carbon monoxide is the gas byproduct of the incomplete combustion of fuel used in cars, gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, burning charcoal or wood, gas ranges, fireplaces and heaters. The gas is colorless and odorless, but can be deadly – thus earning its nickname “the silent killer.”

“You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide, but it can cause significant health issues and possibly kill you,” explained Dr. K. Guntupalli, chief, Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep Section at Harris Health Ben Taub Hospital and professor at Baylor College of Medicine.

Carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream and robs the body of much-needed oxygen. While mild exposure can be easily treated, high or prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide can be deadly. Exposure symptoms include headaches, dizziness, confusion, weakness, nausea or vomiting and chest pain. High carbon monoxide exposure affects the lungs, brain, cardiovascular system and central nervous system. Prolonged exposure can cause depression, confusion, memory loss or death.

About 400 people nationwide die and 4,000 are hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning each year, and about 20,000 people are sickened enough to go to an emergency center, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children, the elderly and those with chronic problems like heart disease, anemia and respiratory ailments are most at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Staying Warm and Safe

Guntupalli and other pulmonologists recommend checking space heaters, fireplaces and gas furnaces for carbon monoxide leaks. If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, it’s recommended that one leave the confined area and go outside for fresh air. Oxygen usually clears up most symptoms. For more severe cases, medical staff can administer concentrated oxygen treatments using facemasks or pressurized hyperbaric chambers.

Dr. Nick Hanania, director, Asthma Clinical Research Center, Harris Health Ben Taub Hospital and associate professor, Baylor College of Medicine, cautions to never use gas-powered generators or charcoal grills indoors. Similarly, never use gas stove tops and ovens to heat a room or house. Hire a professional to inspect furnaces and fireplaces annually before using them. Finally, install a carbon monoxide detector.

Confirming a case of carbon monoxide poisoning requires a blood test. However, Hanania suggested tracking any unexplained symptoms of headaches, nausea, vomiting or weakness while in a setting that clear up when you’ve left that location. If several people in your home are experiencing similar symptoms, consider that carbon monoxide may be the culprit and seek medical attention immediately.

“You could be creating carbon monoxide and not realize it until it’s too late,” he says. “The dangers of carbon monoxide are too great to ignore.”

For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning, view CDC’s frequently asked questions about carbon monoxide facts.