Tips for Winter Safety and Avoiding Carbon monoxide poisoning

Winter Safety includes making sure that carbon monoxide risks are avoided and you are alarmed when it attacks. Know the symptoms and causes.

By Rebecca Martin

If all other warning devices fail, the human body may warn you that you are being poisoned. Winter safety must include an awareness that symptoms you attribute to other winter illnesses can be coming from carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Headache;
  • Weakness;
  • Fatigue;
  • Dizziness;
  • Nausea or vomiting;
  • Flu-like symptoms;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Confusion;
  • Blurred vision;
  • Dull headache;
  • Ringing in the ears;
  • Loss of consciousness;

These are all symptoms that may indicate that carbon monoxide is present in your home.

winter safety

Winter safety starts with making sure that carbon monoxide risks are eliminated in your home and car and that you understand the warnings that your body and alarms alert you to.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas which cannot be detected except through use of a carbon monoxide detection device. The incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning increases during the winter months due to the increased exposure to fuel-burning sources such as idling cars or heating systems. For more on the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, click here.

Dynamic Weather Changes a Factor in Winter Safety

In my region of the country in the Ohio River Valley, the winter temperatures have been fairly unpredictable until this week. We went from frigid temps to devastating tornadoes to a heat wave and back to frigid temperatures. Many areas of the country have experienced snowstorms this week as well as the power outages which accompany storms. I think it is fair to say that the general state of the weather appears to be increasingly unpredictable. This rise and fall in temperatures can sometimes deliver surprises we are not as prepared for as we might have been in years past.

This came to mind as I switched on the heat and closed windows and doors this week. And yet the frosted windows on my car were still a ten minute delay I had somehow forgotten this morning. I noted happily that my neighbor pulled their vehicle out of the garage to warm it up, following the most basic of rules for carbon monoxide safety. It made me wonder how prepared are we for winter weather problems during what seems to be an unusual winter season?

Chimneys and Fireplaces must Be Inspected

If we have done due diligence on home maintenance–had heating systems and fireplaces inspected and installed carbon monoxide detection–what other fundamentals of winter readiness and carbon monoxide safety should we all be addressing? The Washington Post has a good list for all the items we should be addressing before the onset of cold weather in order to maintain our home investments as well as increasing the longevity of home systems at https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/10/01/use-this-checklist-prepare-your-home-winter/

Winter Safety Requires Functioning CO Detectors

It is 2022. Carbon monoxide detectors have a lifespan of around 7 years. Replace any detectors installed prior to 2015. Replacing old detectors guarantees that your local fire department won’t be responding to the calls about detectors sounding at end of its useful life.

There are other safety measures which can be taken when faced with severe weather conditions, especially those which result in power outages.

How to Distinguish CO from Other Illness

One of the most important preventatives is to become familiar with the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

If several members of your family fall ill at the same time with the symptoms listed above, carbon monoxide should be ruled out. Insist that ER personnel do a blood test for carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is often disregarded as “just the flu” or a “touch of food poisoning”. In the age of Covid, symptoms may also be written off.

“COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising across the United States. Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning incidence also rises with the onset of cooler weather and greater use of heating systems. The symptoms of COVID-19 may overlap with symptoms of CO poisoning, including headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and altered mental status with no alternative explanation.” https://emergency.cdc.gov/newsletters/coca/12092020.htm

The government is advising medical professionals to consider carbon monoxide exposure in such instances and examination in a hospital to confirm or rule out carbon monoxide. This is done by measuring the patient’s carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) level.

“A high level of suspicion is needed in patients who present with general or non-specific signs and symptoms, altered mental status, or both, as obtaining a detailed history may be difficult.” https://emergency.cdc.gov/newsletters/coca/12092020.htm

Carbon monoxide levels can rise very quickly and cause a loss of judgement, confusion, and eventually the inability to react to the danger at all. Small children succumb quicker to carbon monoxide due to their faster respiration rates. The elderly are also more quickly affected. Pets might be the first to display problems associated with carbon monoxide poisoning, often flushing a bright red color in hairless areas or in the gums as an early warning that they have absorbed too much carbon monoxide.

Fireplaces are clearly a winter safety hazard as they are a source of carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure the flue is open before lighting and that ashes are thoroughly cold before closing the flue again. If the fireplace is not drafting properly there may be an atmospheric condition or backdraft during stormy weather, or a weather-related blockage. Placement of additional space heating while a fire is present should take into account the affect the fan may have on proper ventilation.

All devices meant for outdoor use such as lanterns, grills and hibachis should never be used indoors due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Opening a window is not going to reduce the risk.

One very important point I heard recently is that just because you have done something risky before a winter storm without ill effect doesn’t mean that the next time it won’t prove fatal. It only takes one time to result in a tragedy. Warnings regarding fuel-burning devices should never be ignored.

Generators are Always a Hazard in Bad Weather

The proper use of portable generators is a necessity to avert tragedies. Generators should always be placed away from the home and away from any source that could enter the home such as windows, doors and vents. Generators should never be placed in an attached garage even if the door is open.

Car Winter Safety

This past week, car safety has been a major concern during winter storms. An elderly couple perished in Pennsylvania due to carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a vehicle left running in an attached garage. https://www.pennlive.com/news/2022/01/couple-dead-from-accidental-carbon-monoxide-poisoning-were-found-in-running-car-state-police.html

Thousands of drivers were also left stranded this week on highways in frigid temperatures overnight in Virginia during the recent snowstorm. While it seems intuitive, this winter safety hazard is a situation that too many of us are unprepared for. There is an excellent checklist for vehicle safety during the winter available at constellation.com. If you become stranded during a blizzard you should check the exhaust frequently to make sure it is not blocked by snow and run the car intermittently to keep warm. Keeping extra garments and blankets in the car during winter is also a good precaution. Some of the main concerns are safety, visibility to other drivers or rescue services, warmth, and the ability to exit when conditions improve. Other items such as extra medications might be needed as one never knows how long one might be stranded. Remember to keep your seatbelt on when sitting on or beside a highway as you can still be struck by another vehicle.

Winter safety should also be a concern for your shorter trips. Take the time to properly de-ice your vehicle for optimum visibility before running an errand. Keep an ice scraper in your vehicle. If you must run the vehicle always make sure it is outside and monitored. In many areas it is illegal to leave a vehicle running unattended even in your driveway. If you should run off the road due to snow, always make sure you have cleared the exhaust system of snow after digging out.

Take the time to check weather forecasts when traveling. If you don’t need to travel during a storm, stay off the roads for your sake and the sake of other drivers. If you must commute, be prepared for unexpected delays. Remember that when it is slippery you need to worry about other drivers losing control of their vehicles even if you feel comfortable with the driving conditions.

Although it sounds dramatic to talk about surviving winter weather, many people lose their lives during the winter months or end up in the emergency room due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Many of these tragedies can be averted by proper preparation and awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide.

 

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