Carbon Monoxide Heat

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

Carbon Monoxide: How Your Choice of Heat Can Kill You

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Group of lit lanternsCDC. A family of four found is found dead in a two-room tent with the propane heater still running. The cause of death: carbon monoxide poisoning.

A father and son fall asleep in their charcoal-heated tent. They don’t wake up.

Your choice of heat can kill you without singeing a hair.

Carbon monoxide is colorless and orderless—a silent killer. It’ s the leading cause of poisoning deaths. How can you ensure you or your family isn’t its next victim? When you’re camping or the heat goes off, remember that unless you have a working chimney, makeshift heating may be your greatest danger.

[Electricity's Out]

Carbon Monoxide Sources

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of burning fossil (carbon) fuels. This includes

Everyday Poison Prevention

To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from household heating, have a working carbon monoxide monitor on every floor, and make sure your heating units get checked regularly for leaks.

  • gas (diesel, gasoline for the car, kerosene, propane)
  • paper
  • candles
  • coal
  • charcoal
  • wood

With any heat source other than pure electricity, you must vent the fumes to the outside or risk carbon monoxide poisoning. The venting must have no leaks. No exceptions.

Some supposedly haunted houses have been explained by hallucinations from carbon monoxide poisoning.

[Headaches and Hauntings]
Signs and Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Think flu symptoms without the fever—headaches, drowsiness, heart palpitations to name a few. Add depression, even hallucinations, for low-dose, long-term exposures. Some supposedly haunted houses have been explained by the residents’ chronic carbon monoxide poisoning and resultant hallucinations.

[Get Out]
Treatment for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The treatment is oxygen—pure oxygen if you have a tank. Most people don’t, so go outside for fresh air. Of course, call an ambulance if needed and one’s available.

[Frog in a Frying Pan]

How Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Works

Carbon monoxide kills by replacing the oxygen in your red blood cells. It sticks on the cell where the oxygen should be and won’t let go. Inhaling carbon dioxide slowly deprives your body of essential oxygen, and you never even get short of breath. Kind of like the proverbial frog in the frying pan. Supposedly, if you turn the heat up gradually, it won’t even know it’s burning to death. With carbon monoxide, you go to sleep and don’t wake up.

As for the best methods for venting, that’s not my expertise. I would appreciate tips.

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  • D P

    Please do not take this as sarcasm or anything like that – it is not my intention. I just have a question – how did people live for hundreds of years with nothing but fireplaces, candles, and oil lamps without massive amounts of individuals dying of carbon monoxide poisoning? I think of the pioneers in their log cabins, and centuries of people who lived before the advent of electricity…

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Good Question. My guess is most of these houses had plenty of cracks and crevices for ventilation. In other words, the house wasn’t air tight. Also, a good chimney will vent out the fireplace carbon monoxide.

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  • Loyce McGee

    I have a large collection of oil lamps and candles that I use all the time in winter. Many times when the electricity goes out, I light up 3 or 4 lamps and a few smaller ones around the house. My home is about 1500 sq ft, but the lamps keep it fairly warm, with sweaters and socks, and I have never had a problem so far. Am I in any danger from my lamps??

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Loyce, There’s a small risk. Make sure you have a carbon monoxide monitor with battery backup on every floor.

  • Valerie C

    Thank you for posting this!!! I am considered to be one of the foremost experts in my state on this subject and so many people just don’t get it! I can’t tell you how many horror stories I have with regard to this! Everyone should know the dangers of carbon monoxide. And Please– Know where to put your detectors!

    • Lee

      Where are you suppose to put carbon monoxide detectors?? We have gas heat –(natural gas)

      • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

        A carbon monoxide detector should go on every floor of your house.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Valerie, Thanks for the advice.


  • http://FB Charlotte Giles

    We use a ventless wall gas heater in a large romm that use to be a garage and we plan on putting in the living room a ventless gas fireplace you can buy at Lowes. Are these dangerous and can they cause CO poisioning?

    • lori c

      I also use one of these to heat my house. Directions that come with it say to crack a window to allow oxygen in. I have never done this, but my house isn’t as ‘tight’ as some newer homes-lots of existing drafts. I have never had any CO2 issues, but I DO have a CO2 detector, just in case!

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Charlotte, I’m not even close to an expert on ventless heat, but it seems like a bad idea. The fumes have to go somewhere. At least, get a carbon monoxide alarm and put it in your garage/room and see if it detects any.

  • Kawryan
    • Kegan

      Sorry but this is still Propane which produces carbon monoxide.

      One trick is to use some of the heated up Rocks from your campfire.

      • kat

        Heated rocks are great when camping. But you have to be careful about the rocks you chose. I’ve heard some can ‘pop’ or explode when heated in the fire.

        • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

          Kat, really. Do you know how to tell which ones are susceptible to this?

          • cavinfamily

            it’s my understanding that you want to avoid any rocks that have been submerged in water, like from a river bed or stream. they can contain water inside, and when that water comes to a boil, the pressure can cause the rocks to break.

            as for the buddy heaters, i did notice that the 2 larger ones have an automatic low oxygen shutoff, and the small one has a low oxygen alarm. guess it depends on how much you trust the products.

          • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

            Thanks, cavinfamily. Good info to know.

  • Rachael

    We are getting ready to camp out in a tent. We planned to use a plug in heater. Is there
    one the you recommend for these conditions?

    Thank you,

    • Sheila

      Rachael, if your overnight lows only get to 0 C or 32 F, you can use an in-car heater. If you live in a warm climate, then you’ve likely never heard of those, but in Canada, they’re pretty common, especially on the Prairies. These heaters don’t get overly hot, so low risk of burning. I’ve used them for tenting in the summer on cooler nights.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Rachael, I really don’t know. Maybe a ceramic one? Just a guess. What model I don’t know. I’d ask someone more qualified, that goes camping a lot.