PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As the Pacific Northwest prepares for frigid nighttime temperatures and colder weather overall, the Oregon Poison Center at OHSU warns that power outages increase risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Carbon monoxide is produced generally when you’re burning fossil fuels, and so a lot of times when the energy goes out,” said Dr. Robert Hendrickson, medical director for the Oregon Poison Center. “When the heat goes out, people tend to try to use other ways to heat their house or to. you know, to make their house hospitable. That can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.”

According to Dr. Hendrickson, the early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning can often be mistaken for the flu, COVID or another type of infectious disease, as they include headache, lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting. However, carbon monoxide poisoning tends to progress quickly. If untreated, it can lead to loss of consciousness, a coma and then permanent brain damage.

If a carbon monoxide detector in your house goes off, you should evacuate your house, get somewhere to fresh air and immediately call 911.

Dr. Hendrickson heavily stressed the importance of fresh air because — fun fact about carbon monoxide — It can move not only throughout the house but even through walls.

“Sometimes if you are having symptoms, the source of the problem may not be totally evident to you. And so and if you live in an apartment, it may be next door that has the carbon monoxide problem and you are starting to get the symptoms,” said Hendrickson. “There may be other people involved in the source and you may be able to help them as well.”

If you believe you have been exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning and your detector does not go off, Dr. Hendrickson says to first call the Poison Center. They will aid you in figuring out if you have been exposed and get you the help you need.

But before you reach that point, Dr. Hendrickson said the time for homeowners to reduce risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is now, right before the big freeze.

You can take the following steps:

  • Get a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector and have it on every floor of your home. And if you already have detectors, check the batteries and change them as needed.
  • If you plan on heating your house with a fireplace, make sure that flue can open make sure that the chimney is unobstructed by certain objects, like branches or leaves.
  • If you plan on burning anything else for heat, such as a fuel-burning generator, that has to be done outside your residence. You should also avoid using the oven, stove or barbecue to heat the home.

But one thing you absolutely should not do is use your car for a heat source.

“That’s a very, very high risk thing to do for carbon monoxide,” emphasizes Hendrickson. “Never sleep in a running car, running RV, running trailer, anything like that, particularly if it’s enclosed.”

If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, you can call the Oregon Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.