Rutgers experts discuss the increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in the winter and during travel

“Carbon monoxide detectors are the only way to detect this odorless, colorless, life-threatening gas,” said Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center.


Recently, 25 people were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning at a vacation rental home in Idaho. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all reported cases of carbon monoxide poisoning occur during the winter, with travelers especially at risk due to varying regulations on carbon monoxide (CO) alarms across states.

“Carbon monoxide detectors are the only way to detect this odorless, colorless, life-threatening gas,” said Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School’s department of emergency medicine. “Unfortunately, laws requiring CO detectors vary across accommodations like chain hotels, vacation rentals, bed and breakfasts in the U.S. and abroad.”

Calello discusses how to stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning at home and when traveling.

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
Recognizing CO poisoning is more challenging in the winter as symptoms often mimic viral illnesses like the common cold and flu. Low-level exposure can produce headaches, sleepiness, fatigue, confusion and irritability. At higher levels, it can cause nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, impaired vision and coordination and even death.

What are the sources of carbon monoxide at home?
Carbon monoxide mainly comes from gas appliances and heating systems. Other sources include portable gas generators, snow-blocked car tailpipes, heating and dryer vents, portable room heaters, fireplace or chimney flues and malfunctioning heating systems for indoor swimming pools and hot tubs. We have even seen poisoning from people smoking hookahs in small or poorly ventilated spaces.

To minimize risk, clear the snow from heating and dryer vents and car tailpipes. Do not idle your car in the garage and be careful of remote start engines that could turn on by mistake. Periodically inspect your chimneys and heating systems to prevent blockages and open flues when using your fireplace. Only use generators outside, placed more than 20 feet away from all structures and openings. Never use the stove to heat your residence or use charcoal-burning devices, including hookahs, inside your home, camper or tent.  

How can people reduce their risk of carbon monoxide exposure while traveling?
When making room reservations, ask about the accommodation’s CO detector policies, including detector locations. When staying in hotels, apartments or people’s homes, take your own battery-operated travel CO alarm with you.

If a CO detector sounds its alarm at home or in your accommodations, listen and act fast because it’s trying to save your life.

What should you do if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning?
CO poisoning should be handled as a medical emergency. If you feel ill, go outside to fresh air. You should start to feel better once you are away from the source of the gas. Get help immediately if you suspect someone was exposed by calling your local poison control center [800-222-1222]. If someone is unconscious, not breathing, hard to wake up or seizing, call 911 first, then contact poison control for further assistance.