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Colder temperatures, power outages increase risk of carbon monoxide poisoning

Medical experts advise using caution with portable generators, alternative heat, cooking sources
A carbon monoxide detector is a small battery-operated device that works similar to a smoke alarm. This image is of a person using their finder to press a button to test a carbon monoxide detector, a small white,  square device.
Carbon monoxide is a tasteless, odorless gas that can have serious health effects. A battery-operated carbon monoxide detector, like this one, will sound an alarm when it senses carbon monoxide in a home or office space. (Getty Images)

As wintry weather sets in throughout Oregon, the Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health & Science University and the Legacy Emanuel Hyperbaric Department want to remind the public about the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Colder temperatures and storms may leave people without power or looking for alternative sources to heat their homes. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, portable generators as well as alternative heat and cooking sources should be used with care - and always outside the home.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include: headache, dizziness, lightheadedness and feeling weak or nauseated. In serious cases, loss of consciousness or death may occur. Carbon monoxide can be life-threatening – particularly in children, the elderly or sick -- but anyone is at risk of poisoning with exposure to high concentrations.

Carbon monoxide is a tasteless, odorless gas produced whenever fossil fuel is burned. It is produced by gas-powered heating systems, and other gas, oil or coal-burning appliances. Carbon monoxide is also produced by portable grills and camp stoves. Malfunctioning or improperly used appliances, as well as outdoor cooking devices used indoors, can result in carbon monoxide build-up in an enclosed space. Exhaust from a leak in a vehicle’s exhaust system, a blocked tailpipe or vehicles left running in attached garages or near open windows can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Robert Hendrickson M.D.
Robert Hendrickson, M.D. (OHSU)

“This is the perfect time to check your battery-operated carbon monoxide detector or install one on every level of your home if you haven’t already done so. If you need to use a generator or alternative cooking source, it is extremely important to place them outside, well away from windows, doors and ventilation systems,” said Rob Hendrickson, M.D., medical director of the Oregon Poison Center at OHSU and professor of emergency medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine.

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, move to a source of fresh air and call 9-1-1.

Enoch Huang, M.D. (Legacy Health)
Enoch Huang, M.D. (Legacy Health)

“If your carbon monoxide detector is sounding an alarm, do not ignore it. Move outside and call 9-1-1 so they can investigate. Carbon monoxide is able to pass through drywall, so the source may not be obvious,” said Enoch Huang, M.D., medical director of the Legacy Emanuel Hyperbaric Department.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is preventable. Follow these tips to reduce your risk of carbon monoxide exposure:

  • Install a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detector on every level of your home. Check or replace the device’s battery regularly – ideally, every six months –to ensure detectors are working properly.
  • Have your fireplace, heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil or coal-burning appliance serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi or portable camping stove inside a home, tent, car or camper.
  • Portable generators should be used outdoors at least 25 feet away from a window, door or vent. Basements and garages are not safe locations to run a generator, even with doors and windows open.
  • It is not safe to use a gas range or oven to heat a home.
  • If you use a fireplace, be sure that your vents and flues are free of debris, especially if winds are high. Flying debris can block ventilation lines.
  • Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage.
  • It is not safe to use a vehicle or motor home engine to heat a parked vehicle or camper if you are staying in it overnight. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing a poison emergency, call the Oregon Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. A trained health care provider is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The call is free and confidential. Poison prevention education and other poison safety resources are available at

Accredited by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the Oregon Poison Center is a designated regional poison control center for Oregon, Alaska and Guam.

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