Most of us are good about having smoke detectors in the house — and even replacing the batteries regularly. But protecting the family from carbon monoxide (CO) may be a different story. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this odorless, colorless gas causes about 500 accidental deaths each year in the United States. The good news is that protecting your family is fairly simple.

Carbon monoxide is given off by appliances that burn fuel, including gas, wood, oil, kerosene and charcoal. That means your furnace, oven, fireplace, portable generator and — here’s a major culprit when it comes to carbon monoxide poisoning — kerosene or gas space heater. Gas accumulates when these appliances aren’t well ventilated. When you breathe too much carbon monoxide, your body has a hard time absorbing oxygen. This can lead to serious tissue damage and even death.

Smart safety tips

One important step you can take to protect your family is to install a battery-operated carbon monoxide alarm (or one that is hardwired but has a battery backup) in the hallway near every separate sleeping area in your home. Check the batteries at least twice a year.

A recent report found that CO can pass through gypsum wallboard and even painted drywall, which means it can leak in from neighboring apartments and businesses, making alarms even more important.

Also follow these important precautions:

  • Even if the heat goes off in your house and it’s cold, resist the temptation to use your oven or gas range to warm things up. Pile on extra clothes or find shelter elsewhere instead.
  • Take extra care with fuel-burning space heaters. Use the right fuel, and don’t use them when everyone is asleep. Never use a fuel-burning space heater in an enclosed area, such as a tent, camper or motor home.
  • Make sure furnaces and kerosene or gas heaters are properly vented to the outdoors. Avoid using unvented space heaters.
  • Always open your garage door before you start your car. Never leave a gasoline engine (car, lawn mower, generator or boat) running in a garage, shed or any enclosed space.
  • Use portable generators as far away from your home as possible, away from windows, door and vents. Never use one inside your house, garage or other enclosed area.
  • Have heating systems (including chimneys, vents and flues) cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified technician.
  • When using your fireplace, open the flue for ventilation. Don’t close fireplace doors or a stove damper until the fire is completely out.
  • Never use a gas or charcoal grill inside a house or recreational vehicle.

Know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

The symptoms can be subtle at first. You may chalk up that headache or nausea to something else. But the more you know about carbon monoxide poisoning, the faster you’ll recognize it if it happens to you or a family member. Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

As carbon monoxide builds up in your body, symptoms can get worse and may include:

  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of coordination
  • Disorientation
  • Loss of consciousness

If you suspect you’re suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, act immediately, before you’re too weak or disoriented to do so. Turn off fuel-based appliances and get everyone out of the house. Go directly to an emergency room and tell the doctor you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning.