Can You Smell Carbon Monoxide? 3 Common Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is one gas that petrifies even the bravest of people. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that at least 420 people in the U.S. die from accidental CO poisoning, and more than 100,000 frequent the emergency department for the same. 

Alarming, isn’t it? Such statistics make people wish that if something as dangerous as carbon monoxide gas comes their way, it should at least alert them by its smell or anything visible and tangible. So, most people wonder, Can you smell carbon monoxide? What Does Carbon Monoxide Smell Like?

Unfortunately, carbon monoxide has no smell. It is a byproduct of combustion. It is a scentless and colorless gas. 

What’s even more worrisome about it is that it comes from appliances and equipment we use in our daily work and home activities.

Furnaces, kerosene heaters, vehicles warmed up in garages, stoves, lanterns, gas ranges, portable generators, and burnt charcoal are examples of appliances whose fumes emit carbon monoxide.

Since carbon monoxide has no smell, taste, or color, the human senses can hardly detect it. Therefore, it is an unseen risk whose exposure to human beings may prove fatal.

You’d want to keep yourself and your loved ones safe by noting all the possible CO sources in your home and installing a carbon monoxide detector.

This is not all. There’s much more you can learn about carbon monoxide. This article will inform you about this poisonous gas, the symptoms of its poisoning, its sources, checking for presence, etcetera.

We will also answer frequently asked questions about carbon monoxide and its associated concerns.

Read on to find out more.

What Is Carbon Monoxide?

Understanding carbon monoxide is critical as it has proven to be a silent yet perilous weapon. Carbon monoxide is a scentless, colorless, and tasteless gas or liquid that results from incomplete oxidation of carbon in combustion.

Carbon monoxide burns with a violet flame. It slightly dissolves in water and completely dissolves in alcohol and benzene.

Carbon monoxide’s gravity is estimated at 0.96716. Its boiling point is -190oC, and its solidification point is -207oC. Its volume is 13.8 cu. Ft./lb. (70oF).

The gas is also classified as an inorganic compound.

The characteristics of carbon monoxide gas make it practically impossible for the human senses to detect it. For this reason, it can dangerously build up in a given atmosphere, and humans will not detect it until they feel ill. 

Even worse, symptoms of its poisoning are similar to flu symptoms, so unsuspecting victims may ignore the early signs until it is too late.

Now that we know what carbon monoxide gas is let’s also learn about symptoms of its poisoning as noting them in early stages might save your life and your loved ones.’

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Can You Smell Carbon Monoxide?
Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when combustion fumes are inhaled. If the CO levels in the atmosphere are too high, it will displace and replace the oxygen in the human body.

As a result, vital organs and tissues will be deprived of oxygen, leading to serious health complications and death in extreme situations.

The amount and period of carbon monoxide exposure often determine the type of symptoms one will experience.

  • At low concentrations, healthy people will experience fatigue, while those suffering from heart disease will start experiencing chest pains.
  • At higher concentrations, one will likely experience impaired vision and coordination, headaches, dizziness, confusion, and nausea.

One can easily confuse these symptoms for the flu. However, you can tell that it’s carbon monoxide poisoning if the symptoms stop when you leave your home and return once you are back.

Also, if everyone in the house, including pets, falls sick simultaneously, it could signify carbon monoxide poisoning. If it were the flu, one person would get sick or show symptoms before it is spread to other people.

  • If the concentrations are very high, the effects could be as fatal as complete organ damage or, worse still, death.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the following are the general symptoms one will exhibit upon intoxication by carbon monoxide:

  • Dull Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Breath Shortness/ Difficulties in breathing
  • Blurred visions
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Increased heart rate
  • Low blood pressure

While everyone is at risk of experiencing CO poisoning, the following group of people is medically reported to face a higher risk:

Unborn babies. The red blood cells in fetuses take up carbon monoxide more readily than adults. As a result, unborn babies are more susceptible to CO poisoning.

Young Children take their breaths more frequently than adults, which makes them more prone to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Older Adults. Older adults are more likely to suffer brain damage upon exposure to the deadly gas.

People with existing medical conditions. People suffering from chronic heart diseases, anemia, and respiratory complications are also more likely to get sick from carbon monoxide exposure.

Also, drunk people and those sleeping will likely suffer from CO poisoning without noticing.

The Mayo Clinic further emphasizes that depending on the degree and length of carbon monoxide exposure, the affected victims may suffer:

  • Permanent brain damage
  • A damaged heart that could result in life-threatening cardiac complications
  • Pregnant mothers may experience miscarriage and fetal death
  • Death.

Following such grave implications, learning to protect oneself from experiencing CO poisoning is vital.

Discussed below are prevention tips against carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Installing Carbon Monoxide Detectors

This is the safest and surest protection against carbon monoxide poisoning. The device will alert you through chirping or beeping once it detects unsafe CO levels.

It will help if you regularly change the device’s batteries (at least twice a year). 

Also, install the detector in locations where it would quickly wake you up in an emergency. The most recommended positions are outside the bedroom and in the hallway. 

Remember to replace the detector after every five years for optimum protection.

  • Always Open Your Garage Door Before Starting Your Car

Avoid leaving a running car in the garage, especially if it is attached to the house. Do not do this, even with open doors.

  • Only Use Gas Appliances as Recommended.

The winter season is, at times, too cold to bear that one would be tempted to go to extremes to heat their homes. This is a dangerous act!

Avoid using a gas stove, oven, or heater to warm your house.

If you have fuel-burning space heaters, only use them in the presence of an adult who will monitor them. While using them, also consider opening the doors and windows for adequate ventilation.

Avoid running a generator in an enclosed space like the basement or garage, as the machine produces dangerous CO levels.

  • Properly Vent Your Fuel-Burning Appliances and Engines

Carbon monoxide is considered a byproduct of incomplete combustion. Therefore, any fuel-burning appliance in your home will likely emit CO gas.

If not adequately vented, CO will build up at dangerous levels in your home, resulting in profound health implications if not detected on time.

Fuel-burning appliances include space heaters, furnaces, cooking ranges, water heaters, portable generators, wood-burning stoves, car and truck engines, fireplaces, and charcoal grills.

You should also call your utility company to inspect all your gas appliances, as any malfunction could result in CO buildup in your home.

  • Properly Maintain Your Fireplace Chimney

 If your chimney and flue clog, it will result in CO buildup, as the fireplace will burn without ventilation. Avoid this by cleaning up your fireplace chimney and flue every year.

  • Be Cautious When Handling Solvents in an Enclosed Space.

Methylene chloride is a solvent found in paint and varnish removers. If inhaled, this solvent will metabolize into carbon monoxide, making it a potential source of poisoning.

For this reason, normalize only using such solvents outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces. For safety precautions, you should also read the manufacturer’s instructions before use.

Knowing and identifying carbon monoxide sources in the home is also an effective way to prevent potential carbon monoxide poisoning. One can look for these sources if they suspect poisoning.

Let’s discuss these sources!

Carbon Monoxide Sources in the Home

Most cases of carbon monoxide poisoning are reported during winter and while people are asleep. This is the period when most people use heating appliances that potentially produce CO to warm their homes.

Here is a list of home appliances that emit carbon monoxide:

1. Clothes Dryers

Clothes dryers use propane during the drying process, which leads to carbon monoxide emissions.

Under normal circumstances, the CO from the clothes dryers is not a cause for alarm as it is emitted through a ventilation system.

However, it will become a problem if the vent is faulty. If this happens, the hot air produced during the drying process will remain trapped, possibly causing the lint to catch fire.

As a result, the lint produces carbon monoxide gas, which can build up to dangerous levels.

2. Water Heaters

If your home uses natural gas or propane, you are likely to have a gas water heater. If properly installed and maintained, the gas water heater will not cause an alarm and will continue to provide you with a reliable and safe hot water source for years.

However, if the water heater is not receiving sufficient combustion, or if an improper installation or blockage deters the exhaust from venting correctly, it will back-draft combustion into the home.

This way, you and your loved ones will be exposed to carbon monoxide and its associated concerns, alongside other harmful gases.

3. Furnaces or Boilers

All furnaces that burn fuel produce carbon monoxide as a byproduct, like any other appliance, like a gas range that burns fuel. Therefore, any fan that uses natural gas, propane, or oil to produce heat will create carbon monoxide.

This is not a problem as long as the furnace is appropriately functional, as the heat exchanger (inside the furnace) separates the air you breathe from the toxic flue gases produced in the furnace.

However, if the furnace malfunctions or develops a crack, it will create room for carbon monoxide to leak through. The dangerous gas will, in turn, accumulate in the house, posing a life threat to you and your loved ones if not detected on time.

4. Fireplaces (Gas and wood-burning fireplaces)

Fireplaces are also listed among the most notorious sources of carbon monoxide.

An obstructed chimney is one of the common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning from a fireplace. It prevents proper ventilation, thus encouraging carbon monoxide buildup.

A damaged connector pipe or a rusted heat exchanger will also trap carbon monoxide within your home.

Generally, a poorly maintained fireplace results in incomplete combustion, thus encouraging the toxic gas to linger around.

5. Motor vehicles

Motor vehicles are a significant source of CO in your home, mainly if you operate them in an attached garage.

If you turn the car’s AC on in a garage, the car’s intake will pull in the air mixed with exhaust gases. The CO gas will gradually and silently circulate from the garage into your house. If exposed for a long time, the CO gas may cause irreversible damage to you and your loved ones.

6. Tobacco Smoke

Contrary to popular misconceptions, CO is not added to tobacco. Instead, it is created when the tobacco burns incompletely. How does this happen? When there is insufficient oxygen to convert the tobacco’s carbon into harmless carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide is produced.

Therefore, if a smoker is in your house, the cigarette smoke may emit large CO quantities.

7. Gas Stoves and Ovens

While all gas stoves and ovens will produce carbon monoxide, they are not necessarily life-threatening.

The gas flame that heats the oven gives off the deadly CO gas. However, research has proven that over half of all stoves raise CO concentrations in the kitchen beyond the established safe level of 9 parts per million.

You can prevent this from happening in your home by following some precautions. For instance, please avoid using the oven to warm your home as it increases CO levels. Also, avoid using foil to cover the vent holes on the oven’s floor.

Grills, generators, power tools, and lawns are other house equipment that will produce carbon monoxide.

Having these appliances in the house is good as they improve quality of life by making work easier. However, they could also be a source of tribulation as they can produce lethal CO gas. 

Save yourself and your loved ones by having licensed professionals regularly check out the appliances to determine any malfunction. Most importantly, always have a carbon monoxide detector to alert you in case of CO danger.

How Do You Check for Carbon Monoxide Without a Detector?

The odorless, colorless, and tasteless nature of carbon monoxide makes it quite lethal, as the human senses can hardly detect it. Luckily enough, several signs will warn you of a possible CO buildup in your home.

Learning these signs will help protect you and your loved ones against carbon monoxide before it becomes fatal.

The following are some signs that will indicate the presence of CO gas in your home:

  • Presence of Black or Yellow Stains Around Gas Boilers, Stoves, or Fireplaces

The appearance of sooty stains around your appliances indicates a loose connection in the fixing and that carbon monoxide is leaking. 

The black soot may also appear on the front covers or panels of a gas fireplace.

  • Smoke-Building up Whenever You Use the Fireplace.

A blocked or clogged chimney prevents smoke ventilation when a fire burns. This can cause a health hazard, as smoke increases the CO concentration in your home.

A typical chimney contains an upward draft you’ll feel upon opening the flue, even when you are not burning fire. However, if you do not feel the flue’s presence, it could be a warning that CO is accumulating in the atmosphere.

  • Yellow Flames on Your Gas Appliances

When burning, your gas will produce a blue flame, which shows that it is perfectly functional. However, if you notice yellow or orange flames or the burners are not igniting fully, it signifies a malfunction.

This malfunction will, in turn, result in CO buildup in the house.

  • Pilot Lights Frequently Blowing Out

The pilot lights are the tiny flames on your furnaces, gas stoves, and water heaters. They burn to prevent carbon monoxide from leaking into the house.

However, if this pilot light starts flickering or doesn’t stay lit, it’s flagging that carbon monoxide has built up around it.

Also, like gas appliances, the pilot lights are usually blue when properly functioning. However, if the pilot light burns with a weak/lazy “yellow” flame, it indicates incomplete combustion, which causes CO to build up.

  • Condensation Buildup on Windows Near Gas Appliances

If droplets are visible on the inner side of windows in a room with gas appliances, it signals that the appliances are not venting outside correctly and that carbon monoxide is building up.

  • When You Start Experiencing Symptoms of Mild CO poisoning.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) established a recommended carbon monoxide limit of 35 ppm. If the CO levels rise to 50 ppm, you will likely start experiencing flu-like symptoms.

However, if you are experiencing these symptoms without a fever, it indicates CO poisoning and not flu. The symptoms may include tension headaches, dizziness, fatigue or tiredness, confusion, difficulty breathing, chest pains, stomach upset, and dizziness.

If you also notice that multiple people in your household, including pets, are getting sick simultaneously, it could also signify CO accumulation in the house.

Why not the flu? If these symptoms were caused by the flu, one person would be sick before spreading it to others, as flu is a communicable disease.

Lastly, if these symptoms seem to go away when you are not home and reappear once you return, it’s a sure indicator that carbon monoxide is leaking into your home.

How Long Do You Have Before Carbon Monoxide Kills You?

We do not have a straightforward definition of how long a person has before succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning. The period before CO gas kills you is influenced by the following factors:

  • The period within which one is exposed to the gas.
  • The concentration of carbon monoxide gas at the time of exposure.
  • The activity level of the person inhaling the CO.
  • An individual’s age and Sex.
  • The General health of a person at the time of exposure.

As we said earlier, everyone is at risk of experiencing CO poisoning. However, pregnant mothers, children, infants, the elderly, intoxicated persons, those sleeping, and those with existing medical conditions are at a higher risk of experiencing CO effects.

High carbon monoxide concentrations will kill a person in under five minutes when all of the mentioned factors are constant. 

For example, if the CO concentration measures 400 ppm, you will experience headaches in an hour or two and die within 3-5 hours in the same concentration.

If the gas is in low concentrations, it will take longer to affect the body. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises maintaining an average carbon monoxide exposure of nine ppm.

However, suppose you exceed this amount for more than eight hours. In that case, you will experience adverse health effects, especially if you fall under the category of people with a higher risk of CO poisoning.

According to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety, the limit of CO exposure for health workers is 50 ppm. This is why most carbon monoxide detectors are designed to sound the alarm when they detect a concentration higher than 100 ppm.

You risk suffering permanent brain, nerve, or heart damage when you continuously get exposed to carbon monoxide. Some people will take years to recover, while others will never recover.

SAFETY TIP: If you or your loved ones experience the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, you should immediately move to a place with fresh air and consult medical authorities.

The type of treatment you’ll receive will depend on the amount of carbon monoxide in your bloodstream.

Can I Detect Carbon Monoxide with My Phone?

Isn’t it mind-blowing to think how much technology does for us? From inventing the life-saving carbon monoxide detectors to inventing phone applications that would inform you of CO levels in your home in the comfort of your phone! That’s right!

Therefore, yes! You can detect carbon monoxide detectors using your phone.

There are several battery and hardwired smart-smoke detectors. These detectors are connected to your home’s Wi-Fi and other networks. They also come with phone or tablet apps that contain features that allow you to remotely check the CO levels in your home and the battery life.

The app also gives you options on when and how you want to be alerted in case your carbon detector sounds an alarm.

Listed below are some of the most recommended smart carbon monoxide detectors available in the market today:

  • First Alert Onelink Safe & Sound.

This device will notify you once it picks up smoke or carbon monoxide. The notification will then display a 911 button for dialing or a dismiss button to silence the alarm.

Alexa and Siri voice commands and other smart home notifications can also control the device conveniently.

  • Google Nest Protect Carbon Monoxide Detector

Once you connect the Google Nest Protect Carbon Monoxide Detector, the alarm will sound a siren in case anything is not right. It will also offer you detailed information through your phone. It will inform you whether it has picked up smoke or carbon monoxide and in which room.

  • First Alert Z-Wave Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Alarm

This device will also send you real-time notifications upon detection of smoke or carbon monoxide. This way, you can decide what to do, regardless of location.

  • Sitwell Wifi Smoke Detector

Like other smart devices, the stairwell detector enables CO detector access through its app. It also sends real-time notifications regardless of your physical location. It also has a voice alert that instantly informs you in case of an issue.

  • AEGISLINK Wi-Fi Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector

It comes with the TuyaSmart app, which allows you to control notifications, such as when the detector’s batteries are low. It also allows you to uniquely personalize the carbon monoxide detector and monitor its levels from the comfort of your phone.

Can technology get any better? In summary, a specific manufacturer’s phone app can detect the presence of carbon monoxide in your phone.

What Are the Stages of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Carbon monoxide poisoning begins when one is exposed to unsafe gas concentrations.

The stages of the poisoning are as follows:

  • Intoxication. One will start experiencing personality changes due to an impaired mental state.
  • Vertigo. You’ll feel yourself (and your surroundings) spinning.
  • Ataxia. This is poor or loss of coordination.
  • Difficulties in breathing and a fast heart rate.
  • Chest main.
  • You may experience seizures due to muscle spasms.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • If the CO levels are incredibly high, a person could die in minutes.

Final Thoughts

Carbon monoxide is a lethal gas that kills over a hundred people in the U.S. annually and sends more than 50,000 to the emergency department. But…

Can You Smell Carbon Monoxide?

For this reason, one would be curious to know what carbon monoxide smells like. If it had a smell, it would save several lives. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide has no smell. 

It is a colorless, scentless, and tasteless gas that ‘silently’ kills people.

This article has informed you on the vital signs to look out for to identify CO poisoning. You can also check out some signs of gas leaking in your house.

However, the safest protection against this gas is to install carbon monoxide detectors that will immediately alert you in case of an issue. And thank goodness! Your phone can also detect carbon monoxide levels in your home.

Which smart carbon monoxide detector works for you? Or which one are you interested in exploring? Best of luck as you keep your family safe this winter season!

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