Carbon monoxide poisoning. An invisible killer.

Carbon monoxide is dangerous, even deadly, because it is invisible. It is odourless and colourless. You can breathe it without notice. 

Carbon monoxide poisoning usually happens in winter, especially when we have, in the home, unvented space heater or other appliances that doesn’t work properly. 

But why the children are at increased risk?

Because their respiration is faster, so they breathe more carbon monoxide. Especially before 4 years of age. 

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Why is carbon monoxide dangerous?

Our body to survive needs oxygen, and the danger of carbon monoxide is that it replaces the oxygen in the blood. 

In carbon monoxide intoxication all the organs, especially the brains, suffer from the low oxygenation of blood.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a medical emergency, a very serious condition that can damage your organ and tissues. It must be treated immediately. 

The symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting, weakness, dizziness. A small baby can have only irritability, crying, poor feeding.

If the exposure is not stopped, more serious symptoms can appear, like difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and coma. There is a serious risk of death.

If you suspect that you or your child have a carbon monoxide poisoning, go to fresh air and call the ambulance.

You can prevent this poisoning avoiding invented heaters, by checking your heat system at home, and using a carbon monoxide detector.  

How is carbon monoxide formed? 

Inhalation of smoke during a fire is one of the main causes of carbon monoxide poisoning.

But many accidents and deaths are caused by non-fire poisoning when there is a bad combustion of carbon-containing fuels.

The devices at risk of producing carbon monoxide are heating systems that work poorly, or are not correctly installed or that have not had a correct and regular maintenance.

Other risky appliances are kerosene stoves or camping stoves.

In fact, an unvented space heater, to produce heat, utilise the indoor air and fuel or kerosene. It sends the gases in the house, not outside. 

The risk is that it can release fumes and carbon monoxide in the room, and consume oxygen. 

For this reason it’s best not to use such unvented space heaters.

Also a barbecue grill used and then kept indoors, for example in the garage, can be very dangerous.

In fact, in this last case the embers that remain for hours and hours can produce carbon monoxide.

Even a fireplace, or a pellet stove, which does not have adequate ventilation can be very dangerous. Periodic evaluation and cleaning is essential.

You can find other information in this post: how to prevent CO poisoning.

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

If symptoms are absent at school and present at home, or if another person has one of the following symptoms, you should think at carbon monoxide poisoning. 

The symptoms and signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are variable and non-specific.

Early Symptoms 






A small baby can have only irritability, crying, he eats less. 

Late symptoms

If the exposure continues, the carbon monoxide poisoning is more severe, the child can have the following signs and symptoms:

Severe Irritability

Difficulty breathing

More severe headache and nausea

Loss of consciousness or altered mental status



It’s important to remember that the initial symptoms are very non-specific, so it’s difficult to diagnose carbon monoxide poisoning.

Possible complications of carbon monoxide poisoning in children

Children can have permanent complications. 

In fact, massive carbon monoxide exposure, even if the child recover, can damage the heart and brain, with ischaemic cardiac disease and, or, neurologic symptoms.


Kao LW, Nañagas KA. Carbon monoxide poisoning. Emerg Med Clin North Am 2004; 22:985.

Cho CH, Chiu NC, Ho CS, Peng CC. Carbon monoxide poisoning in children. Pediatr Neonatol 2008; 49:121.

Ernst A, Zibrak JD. Carbon monoxide poisoning. N Engl J Med 1998; 339:1603.