From the Gas Safe Register

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – what are the symptoms?

You can’t see, taste or smell it but it can be deadly – it’s a silent killer

What is CO poisoning?

Unsafe gas appliances can produce a highly poisonous gas called carbon monoxide (CO). It can cause death as well as serious long term health problems such as brain damage.

CO is produced by the incomplete burning of natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). This happens when a gas appliance has been incorrectly fitted, badly repaired or poorly maintained. It can also occur if flues, chimneys or vents are blocked.

Oil and solid fuels such as coal, wood, petrol and oil can also produce carbon monoxide.

CO poisoning occurs when you breathe in the gas and it replaces oxygen in your bloodstream. Without oxygen, your body tissue and cells die. Even small amounts of the gas can cause CO poisoning, and long term effects can include paralysis and brain damage.

Remember the six main symptoms to look out for:

  1. headaches
  2. dizziness 
  3. nausea 
  4. breathlessness 
  5. collapse 
  6. loss of consciousness

infographic with the 6 main symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning - heaaches, nausea, breathlessness, collapse, dizziness and loss of consciousness

Being aware of the symptoms could save your life

CO symptoms are similar to those of flu, food poisoning, viral infections and fatigue. That’s why it’s quite common for people to mistake this very dangerous poisoning for something else.

Other signs that could point to CO poisoning:

  • Your symptoms only occur when you are at home and seem to disappear when you leave home.
  • Others in your household (including pets) are experiencing similar symptoms and they appear at a similar time. 

What to do if you suspect CO poisoning

  • Get fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows, turn off gas appliances and leave the house.
  • See your doctor immediately or go to hospital – let them know that you suspect CO poisoning. They can do a blood or breath test to check. 
  • If you think there is an immediate danger, call the Gas Emergency Helpline on 0800 111 999.
  • Ask a Gas Safe registered engineer to inspect your gas appliances and flues to see if there is a dangerous problem.

To find engineers who are qualified to investigate the presence of fumes, you can visit our Check a Business page. Enter your postcode. Under the ‘Select appliance type’ tab chose ‘Fumes Investigation’. Remember to click ‘Find’ to see the updated results.

The warning signs of a CO leak

Any of the following could be a sign of CO in your home:

  • Flames of a lazy yellow or orange colour on your gas hob, rather than being a crisp blue;
  • Dark staining on/around appliances;
  • Pilot lights that frequently blow out;
  • Increased condensation inside windows.

Faulty appliances in your home can lead to CO poisoning. Get your gas appliances checked regularly to avoid this – or make sure your landlord is on top of regular checks.

What can you do about it?

  • Our advice is clear: the first and best thing you can do to minimise the risk that your gas appliances produce CO is to ensure that they are safety checked annually by a suitably competent and qualified Gas Safe registered engineer.
  • If you already have a service plan then an annual check may be included as part of that, check the details.
  • An audible CO alarm will activate in the presence of CO. It’s a good second line of defence, but can only tell you when something has already gone wrong.
  • Make sure any alarm you buy is marked to EN 50291 and has the British Standards Kitemark.

CO Alarm – A good second line of defence

Modern CO alarms are similar in design to smoke alarms (which do not detect CO) and can be purchased from around £15 at many major retail outlets including DIY stores and supermarkets. We do not recommend the use of ‘black spot detector’ warning strips – they are too easy to miss and won’t alert you if you have a CO leak when you’re asleep.

It’s advisable to fit an alarm in every room with a gas appliance, and when installing and siting the alarm make sure you refer to the manufacturer’s instructions. Typically, audible CO alarms have a battery life of up to 5 years. If you’re unsure which alarm to get, you can ask a Gas Safe registered engineer for advice.

If you are in rented accommodation, the law states that private sector landlords are required from 1 October 2015 to have at least one smoke alarm installed on every storey of their properties and a carbon monoxide alarm in any room containing a solid fuel burning appliance (eg a coal fire, wood burning stove). After that, the landlord must make sure the alarms are in working order at the start of each new tenancy.