How to Tell if Carbon Monoxide is Present in Your Home

A smoke and carbon monoxide detector on the ceiling.
  • 1-8 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 20-100

Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that can be generated in your own home without your knowledge. It is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, which makes it very difficult to detect.

Furthermore, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be confused with things like the flu, an average headache, or intoxication making it even more difficult to know if you are being affected by carbon monoxide, which can be very dangerous for your health.

Appliances such as space heaters, gas stoves, furnaces, heaters, and refrigerators can all emit carbon monoxide if they are poorly ventilated. A gas leak can also be a major cause of carbon monoxide emissions.

If any of these are the case, you should fix the issue immediately and see a doctor to determine if you have any health issues as a result of your exposure to carbon monoxide if your home has carbon monoxide present.

How Can You Tell if There is Carbon Monoxide Without a Detector?

Even though carbon monoxide detectors are standard in most homes nowadays, and in many cases required by law, it is still important to recognize any signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide leaks in case your detector has problems or you are visiting somewhere without a carbon monoxide detector. You may also be without a carbon monoxide detector if you are traveling.

The carbon monoxide detectors may also run out of batteries at some point. While the machine should alert you if the battery power is running low in the carbon monoxide detector, if it does not or for some reason you are not able to replace the batteries as quickly as you should be replacing them, it is helpful to know the signs that your home has carbon monoxide in it.

The following will provide you with a guide to what you need to know.

Step 1 - Inspect the High-risk Areas

Because of carbon monoxide's nature, it is very difficult to detect. There are a few ways, however, to try. You can take the first step by looking for some of the factors that lead to carbon monoxide emissions.

Make sure all appliances in your home are well-ventilated and therefore not releasing carbon monoxide. Using appliances in an enclosed space can lead to dangerous emissions, so make sure they all vent outside instead of the fumes remaining indoors. An idling car, for example, can fill up your garage with carbon monoxide quickly, which can rapidly spread to your home. Do not leave an idling car in your garage, as tempting as it may be to do so, with the garage door closed. Make sure the garage is getting fresh air and property ventilation.

Step 2 - Examine the Symptoms

person with a headache

People affected by carbon monoxide generally show flu like symptoms, or indigestion, headache, nausea, and light-headedness. Some may even confuse the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning with being intoxicated or having a bad hangover.

This is another reason why most people do not make the connection with carbon monoxide. Its symptoms are just too similar to symptoms of other, more common issues. If all of the members of the household have similar symptoms at the same time, and feel better when they are away from home, however, this could be an indication of carbon monoxide inside. Look for other signs in your home that can indicate risk factors.

Step 3 - Look Around Your Home

There are some reliable indicators that should draw your attention to the presence of carbon monoxide if you are without a carbon monoxide detector. A stale, stuffy smell in a clean home is a warning sign that carbon monoxide is present in your home.

If you notice a burning smell, this can also be a red flag. The smell may not be from carbon monoxide itself, but the smell could be coming from other toxic gases being emitted by malfunctioning equipment.

Excessive moisture on windows and walls, especially if they are close to a fuel-burning appliance, is also an indicator of the presence of carbon monoxide in your home. However, the condensation could also be the result of excessive moisture in your home, so you need to rule out other possibilities before you can definitively conclude that it is a carbon monoxide leak.

If you have a pilot light on your gas stove, observe it for inconsistencies. If the pilot light on your stove continually goes out, it could be malfunctioning and emitting carbon monoxide. If the flames and pilot light on your gas stove are always blue and they are turning yellow, have it checked out by a professional as soon as possible, especially if you do not have a carbon monoxide detector.

You should also be on alert and on the watch for the smell of natural gas when you turn on a fuel-burning appliance in your home.

If there is a buildup of soot or chalk-like powder in your chimney or fireplace vent, get a professional to come and clean it. In addition to emitting carbon monoxide, this can cause other issues as well like increasing your risk of fire, in addition to making the fireplace difficult to use and dirty.

Step 4 - Remedial Measures

If you see any of the above warning signs, and if members of your household are feeling unwell, immediately seek medical attention. Do not wait to see if it will pass. A blood test will confirm or negate the presence of carbon monoxide in your body. This will also help you know how to treat the symptoms you are feeling and hopefully start getting better quickly. If it is carbon monoxide poisoning, cough drops will not be enough to get you feeling better and improve your health.

You should also consult your fuel supplier for an inspection of the appliances in your home if you fear a carbon monoxide leak. This will help you detect anything that is leaking or has been improperly installed so you know what issues to correct for in your home.

What Can Carbon Monoxide Poisoning be Mistaken for?

In most situations, it will take a while for someone to reason they have carbon monoxide poisoning. This is largely because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be confused with a number of other things, such as the flu, since symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, nausea, weakness, and dizziness.

If everyone in your home experiences those symptoms at the same time, it could be a sing that it is carbon monoxide poisoning and not the flu. If this is the case, you will also likely feel better when you step outside whereas with the flu you would not notice a huge change.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can also sometimes be confused with being drunk or hungover due to the symptoms.

If the symptoms are persistent, you should seek medical attention as it could be carbon monoxide poisoning which can have a lot of negative affects on your health.

What Is the Most Common State of Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas. That's part of the reason it can be so dangerous--it is impossible to see or smell making it hard to detect.

How Long Does it Take to Show Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can happen within just a few minutes of being exposed to carbon monoxide but also can take a lot longer depending on the amount of carbon monoxide in the air and your size.

Small pets, for example, are likely to feel the effects of carbon monoxide much faster than an average size adult will.

If your home only has small amounts of carbon monoxide present, it may take much longer for you to start to experience symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. The symptoms can often be confused with other things so it may take awhile for you to realize what is going on.

If everyone in your home starts experiencing the same symptoms all at once, however, carbon monoxide poisoning is a possible culprit for the sudden onset of flu like symptoms in many individuals in your home.

Leave the home immediately to get fresh air and seek medical attention if you are concerned that you and your family may have carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure to take pets to the vet as well to get looked at as due to their size most will feel carbon monoxide poisoning more strongly than we will.

Can Carbon Monoxide Slowly Make You Sick?

Carbon monoxide can make you incredible sick and in some cases even lead to death. In fact, the reason why many may not know they have been exposed to carbon monoxide and have carbon monoxide poisoning is that carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be confused with other sicknesses like the flu or even a basic hangover.

Carbon monoxide poisoning, however, is very serious. If you expect you have carbon monoxide poisoning you should seek medical care immediately. Make sure to get medical care for your family, including pets, quickly as well. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be really harmful to all who are exposed to it if it is not treated quickly by professionals.

What Gives Off Carbon Monoxide in a Home?

Carbon monoxide is created when materials burn. As a result, homes with fuel-burning appliances are more likely to have carbon monoxide problems than those without it.

Car and truck engines are the most common cause of carbon monoxide. You should not run your vehicles when your garage is closed as this can create a lot of carbon monoxide fumes in a small space.

Some other common creators of carbon monoxide include water heaters, furnaces or boilers, gas stoves and ovens, and fireplaces.

Grills, generators, power tools, lawn equipment, and tobacco smoke and also cause carbon monoxide in your home.

Just because these devices can create carbon monoxide does not mean they should be avoided altogether, that is just not realistic. Instead, you must take precautions to properly vent and maintain all fuel burning appliances in your home so you are able to use them without carbon monoxide becoming an issue and carbon monoxide poisoning a major concern.

All appliances that are fuel-burning should be vented to the outside. These appliances should be checked regularly, say at least once a year, by a qualified contractor to check for potential problems. The contractor should be able to help you catch issues before the become a huge problem instead of you only knowing to fix them when something bad has already happened. This will cost a little money in the short run but can save you money and major repairs in the long run. It can also prevent you from getting carbon monoxide poisoning by catching any potential issues early on.

    There are a few tell tale signs of carbon monoxide issues as well that you should be on the lookout for. Again, catching these issues early on can save you a lot of time, money, headache, and other health issues in the long run.

    On occasion, look out for streaks of soot around you fuel-burning appliances, especially your fireplace. This can be a sign that an excess of carbon monoxide is being created without venting properly. If your chimney does not have an upward draft, this can also be an issue. If you notice either, get a professional chimney repair person in immediately.

    • Excess moisture and condensation on windows, walls and cold surfaces
    • Rusting on flue pipes or appliance jacks
    • Orange or yellow flame in combustion appliances (the flame should be blue)
    • Damaged or discolored bricks at the top of the chimney

    Never use appliances intended for outdoor use inside. Examples include barbecue grills, camp stoves, portable generators or gas-powered lawn equipment. Do not use an oven to heat your home. Not only is it a fire risk, it is also a carbon monoxide hazard. Do not run or idle your vehicle in an attached garage. Instead, back your vehicle out right away. Check that your vehicle’s exhaust pipe is not blocked, for example, by snow during the winter.