Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas. You can’t see it, taste it or smell it, but it can be very dangerous.

Susan Helms, the Director of Safe Kids at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, offers parents practical information to help avoid potentially fatal carbon monoxide leaks.

There are a lot of potential sources of carbon monoxide, but the most common to find around the house are things like your furnace, hot water heater, fireplace, gas stoves or space heaters. When working properly, all of these items are safe, but something could go wrong without you knowing and you could end up with a deadly carbon monoxide leak.

Modern house construction is actually more prone to carbon monoxide problems than older houses, because modern homes are more airtight. The same insulation that keeps the cold out can trap carbon monoxide inside, so it’s more important now than ever to be vigilant in making sure that you and family know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning and how to prevent it. 

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are a bit tricky because they start mildly and can easily be mistaken for something like the flu. The early symptoms include headache, nausea and fatigue. Now, if you’re anything like me, when you feel like that, you want to go lay down for a bit, but with carbon monoxide, that’s the worst thing you could do, because further exposure can lead to convulsions, unconsciousness and death. Children and pets are often the first to feel the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. 

So, how can you tell the difference between a normal headache or feeling tired and carbon monoxide poisoning?

Through use of a carbon monoxide detector. It looks a bit like a smoke detector, and in fact, you can buy versions that do both. There are a lot of brands and different features, but it’s important to look for one that is battery powered, so it works during a power outage.

You should buy at least one for each floor of your house, and place them near bedrooms, living spaces and spaces near the garage. Once per month, you should go around and check that it’s still working. Most models will have a test button somewhere on them. Also, be aware that carbon monoxide detectors eventually lose their ability to detect, so you should replace them every five years.

If your carbon monoxide detector alarm goes off, you need to take action immediately. If you aren’t feeling any symptoms, you should open doors and windows in order to ventilate the house and then call 911 for help. They will dispatch someone to come locate the source of the carbon monoxide and help you figure out what needs to be done to fix it. If you are feeling symptoms, you should evacuate the home immediately and then call 911.