An unseen killer undetectable by human senses claims more victims this time of the year than any other. As temperatures start to cool off and indoor holiday traditions begin, carbon monoxide poisoning poses a danger to people throughout the state and country.

Last year the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy documented 246 CO exposures — the most occurring in December with 72 cases.

Susan Smolinske, director of the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center at UNM, said that while most CO poisoning cases happen throughout the winter, the holidays pose a unique risk.

“You get large (amounts of) people gathering, perhaps you have a fire in the fireplace and you don’t have the flu open, so there’s all sorts of situations like that that occur in the holidays,” Smolinske said.

She also said that Christmas lights can come with the risk of CO poisoning, especially for children.

Holiday bubble lights, filled with colored liquid, sometimes burst open and the liquid contains a chemical called methylene chloride, which when ingested is converted into CO by the body.

“We get lots of kids who break those lights,” Smolinske said. “You plug them into the wall, and you get nice bubbles through this red liquid and that red liquid is toxic to ingest.”

CO poisoning cuts off oxygen to the brain and heart, which can result in brain damage or death. Symptoms include tightness across the forehead, headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and dimness of vision. Later symptoms can include fluttering of the heart, chest pain, increased breathing rate and may end with coma, convulsions and death, according to the NMPDIC.

The NMPDIC offers tips about preventing CO poisoning in an online brochure:

  • “Never use your gas dryer or stove to heat your house.
  • Never use a barbeque grill or generator inside your home, motorhome or tent, even if the windows are open.
  • Never warm up your car inside your garage, even if the doors are open.
  • Always have working CO detectors in your home. Make sure they are placed near sleeping areas. Smoke alarms do not detect CO.
  • Have a professional inspect chimneys, flues and furnaces every year.”

Smolinske added to these tips and said regular maintenance of detectors and home heating sources is crucial.

“The batteries on (CO detectors) wear out, so you need to make sure you test it every year,” Smolinske said. “You need to get your heater and water boiler checked every year, (because) annual inspections can save your life.”

She also said there is one way to avoid CO poisoning that coincides with this time of year.

“The best way to prevent it is to get a CO detector for Christmas for somebody you love,” Smolinske said.

Tom Hanlon is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @TomHanlonNM.