Your Car and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, never start your vehicle in an enclosed space and regularly have your exhaust system inspected.
Written by Andrew Biro
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
As your car burns fuel, it produces carbon monoxide, which is converted into carbon dioxide, and expelled from your exhaust pipe. However, if your exhaust system malfunctions or you leave your vehicle running in an enclosed space, it can funnel that carbon monoxide into your car's interior, causing carbon monoxide poisoning.
Each year, thousands of people across the United States inadvertently poison themselves by inhaling toxic carbon monoxide from their vehicle’s exhaust system. Even in small doses, this poisoning can result in a trip to the hospital, but the worst cases are fatal.
Thankfully, preventing carbon monoxide poisoning is as simple as following a few steps—which is why
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What is carbon monoxide?

One part carbon and one part oxygen, carbon monoxide (CO), is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced through the incomplete combustion of certain fuels. Carbon monoxide is poisonous in large quantities as CO molecules actively displace the body’s oxygen molecules, leading to dizziness, nausea, and even death.
MORE: How to pass emissions testing

How your car produces carbon monoxide

As your vehicle burns fuel—be it gasoline or diesel—during the engine’s internal combustion process, it creates carbon monoxide. Normally, CO travels from the engine alongside other combustion byproducts to the catalytic converter, which filters out the majority of pollutants and converts toxic carbon monoxide into non-toxic carbon dioxide (CO2). 
Once converted, the CO2 and other emissions go out the tailpipe and dissipate in the open air.
However, if your exhaust system leaks or if you drive a vehicle built before 1974—the year catalytic converters became mandatory—you may be at risk for unfiltered carbon monoxide inhalation.

Why carbon monoxide from your car is dangerous

In its gaseous form, carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless, and incredibly toxic. If it’s inhaled in large enough quantities, the carbon monoxide from your car can actually poison you, leading to lasting impairments, life-altering illnesses, and even death.
Carbon monoxide does this by slowly displacing the oxygen in your bloodstream, depriving you of oxygen, and causing you to suffocate—even though you still can breathe.
If you start to experience any of the following symptoms while driving or riding in a car, you may be experiencing the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning:
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness of the chest
  • Blurry vision
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Nausea and headaches
Key Takeaway Carbon monoxide is a highly toxic, colorless, odorless gas that can result in poisoning—even in small amounts.If you start to feel lightheaded while driving, experience nausea, or have shortness of breath, pull over immediately and get some fresh air.

How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

Fortunately, it’s easy to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning by following these simple recommendations:
  • Never leave your vehicle running in an enclosed space, such as a garage, even if the door is open.
  • Have your exhaust system serviced regularly—at least once a year—and address any leaks or issues.
  • Get your exhaust system inspected after an accident, regardless of how severe the damage is—even minor fender-benders can damage components of your exhaust system.
  • Always treat the “
    check engine
    ” light coming on as a potentially serious issue and have your engine regularly inspected to ensure it is operating at peak performance.
  • Never run your vehicle when the tailpipe is blocked or clogged.
  • Invest in a portable CO detector and keep it in your car—if it ever goes off, pull over as soon as possible and get to fresh air. 

How to save money on car insurance

As you take measures to protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning, make sure your vehicle is protected with the right insurance policy using
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Carbon monoxide poisoning happens when you inhale too much CO, allowing the gas to build up in your bloodstream. It slowly replaces the oxygen molecules in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide molecules. This can lead to feelings of nausea, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, blurry vision, and even—in extreme cases—suffocation or death.
To prevent vehicular carbon monoxide poisoning, never start or leave your car running in an enclosed space, never run your vehicle if the tailpipe is blocked, have your exhaust system serviced every year, and have your exhaust system inspected after any accidents.
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