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Thursday, September 12, 2024

Older Adults More at Risk for Winter’s ‘Silent Killer’

We all know the common and obvious dangers of winter such as the slippery ice and road conditions, but winter comes with a hidden danger we often overlook: carbon monoxide. With its colorless, odorless and tasteless properties, phrases like ‘silent killer’ and the ‘ghostly gas’ have been coined because of the inherent danger it poses to our health. Of course, carbon monoxide poses risks year round, but the risks are heightened in the winter due to the use of fireplaces, furnaces, space heaters, generators, indoor grills, wood burning and gas stoves-which are often used while the windows are kept closed because of the cold air outside! Some people will warm up the car in the garage, thinking that an open garage door is decent ventilation and not realizing how the exhaust can be sucked back into our garage and homes. A vast majority don’t even realize that this ghostly gas poses more of a threat to older adults.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is the cause of more than 20,000 emergency room visits, 4,000 hospitalizations and approximately 400 deaths per year. Fatality is highest among Americans 65 and older because its affects are more powerful on those with chronic heart disease, anemia or respiratory problems.

The symptoms of CO poisoning can imitate those of other illnesses making it hard to diagnose.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Chest Pain
  • Confusion
  • Loss of Consciousness

I would venture to say that almost all of us have smoke detectors in our homes to warn us of a fire, but I doubt many of us have carbon monoxide detectors. My suspicions were confirmed after I conducted an informal survey with 10 of my friends and family members. I was shocked to find only three of them had carbon monoxide detectors, but all 10 had smoke detectors. This truth is rather disturbing when you consider that we can see a fire coming through smoke or flames (if we are awake), yet we can’t see carbon monoxide build up. And yet, both can cause death! Take these steps to prevent CO poisoning and check in on your loved ones to make sure they are protected as well. CO detectors are a mere $15-$20 at most hardware stores. Not a lot to pay for something that could save your life.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

  • Install a carbon monoxide detector/alarm on every level or your home, near every bedroom and approximately 15 feet away from every fuel-burning appliance.
  • Ensure heating appliances (including gas, oil, wood or coal burning) are working properly and are used in well ventilated areas. Consider having them checked by a professional on an annual basis.
  • Move your car outside of the garage to the driveway or street to warm it up.
  • Put a note on your calendar to check the batteries in your CO detectors as well as your smoke alarms when you reset your clocks every fall and spring.
  • Do not use an oven to heat up your home or living area.
  • Consider purchasing indoor plants (from the palm family) to help improve the overall indoor air quality in your home. Studies have shown they remove CO and other pollutants to effectively clean the air.

If your CO detector alarm sounds off, leave your home immediately and call 911. If you think you have CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light headed or nauseous – seek medical attention immediately.

For more information, please visit:

Carrie Robertson
Research & Community Education

Chicago Skilled Nursing
Chicago Senior Living


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