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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 31, 2022.

What is carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning?

CO poisoning is a life-threatening condition caused by exposure to high levels of CO. CO is a poisonous gas that you cannot see, taste, or smell. Exposure happens when a person breathes in CO. Children are at higher risk for CO poisoning because they breathe faster than adults. This causes them to breathe in more CO. Children younger than 4 years and unborn babies are especially at risk of CO poisoning. CO can build up in your child's body and replace oxygen in his or her blood. Your child's brain, organs, and tissues can be damaged from a lack of oxygen. CO poisoning can be mild or severe. Severe poisoning can cause permanent injury or death.

Where is CO found?

  • Smoke from a fire
  • Faulty devices or equipment, such as a furnace, water heater, gas stove, or wood-burning stove or fireplace
  • Gas-powered tools, vehicles, or machines used in poorly ventilated areas
  • Devices that are not vented, such as propane heaters, stoves, grills, or lanterns used inside a house, trailer, or tent
  • Exhaust from cars or other vehicles

What are the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning?

Signs and symptoms may develop right after CO exposure, or several weeks later. Children often show signs of CO poisoning sooner than adults. Your child may have any of the following:

  • Blurred vision, dizziness, or a headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, or loss of appetite
  • Faster breathing than normal, or trouble breathing
  • Weakness, muscle pain, or dark urine
  • Chest pain, or a fast, strong, or irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion, fainting, or seizures
  • Tremors or shaking, or trouble moving, bending arms or legs, or walking
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing, or controlling facial muscles

How is CO poisoning diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will examine your child and ask about his or her symptoms. Tell the provider if anyone in your home has similar signs and symptoms. Pets may also show similar signs. Your child's healthcare provider will also need to know if your child was unconscious from the poisoning. Tell him or her if you use home heating devices that burn gas, oil, wood, or other fuel. Your child may also need blood tests to check for problems caused by CO poisoning. His or her breath may be tested for the amount of CO it contains. Your child's heart rhythm and brain function may also be monitored.

How is CO poisoning treated?

  • Extra oxygen may be given if your child's blood oxygen level is lower than it should be. Your child may get oxygen through a mask. He or she may also get oxygen through small tubes placed into the nostrils.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used to get more oxygen into your child's body. The oxygen is given under pressure to help it get into his or her tissues and blood. Your child will be in a room called a hyperbaric chamber during the treatment.

What should I do if I think my child was exposed to CO?

CO poisoning can seem like the flu. If you think your child was exposed to CO, have him or her checked by a healthcare provider. The following are steps to take if you believe your child is near a source of CO:

  • Move your child into fresh air. If safely possible, shut off the source of the CO. Wait for a professional to help you if you cannot do this safely.
  • Call 911. Explain when the exposure happened and how long you think it lasted.
  • Start CPR if needed and you are trained on how to do this. CPR may be needed if your child is not breathing.

What can I do to prevent CO poisoning?

  • Install a CO detector in every sleeping area in your home. Place it 5 feet above the floor and away from fireplaces or gas-burning equipment. Change the batteries twice each year. Teach your child what to do if the detector's alarm goes off. He or she needs to know how to get out of the house and where to go to find an adult.
  • Check your chimney, furnace, or wood stoves. Check for problems every year before you use them. Have your fireplace flue cleaned on a regular basis.
  • Be careful with gas appliances. Do not use barbecues or heaters that burn fuel inside your home or other closed spaces. Do not use your gas kitchen oven to heat your home. Make sure appliances are properly hooded or vented.
  • Do not let motor vehicles run in closed areas. This includes letting your car run in a garage. If the car is outside, check that the exhaust pipe is not blocked.
  • Do not let anyone smoke around your child. Cigarette smoke contains small amounts of CO. This increases your child's risk of CO poisoning if he or she is exposed to a source of CO. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you need help quitting.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • Your child has chest pain or an irregular or fast heartbeat.
  • Your child has trouble breathing or is breathing faster than usual.
  • Your child faints or has a seizure.
  • Your child feels weak, has trouble moving, or has severe muscle pain.
  • Your child's urine becomes dark or red.

When should I call my child's doctor?

  • Your child feels dizzy.
  • Your child has a headache or vomits.
  • Your child's eyesight becomes blurred.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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