Given the frequency with which fires occur and the thousands of lives have been saved as a result of smoke detectors, most homeowners understand that one of their best defenses against a home fire is by adhering to safe cooking practices and installing a fire alarm.

But what's often less understood is carbon monoxide and how it, too, poses a significant home safety threat.

Known as "the silent killer," carbon monoxide is not only colorless and void of taste, it's also odorless. In other words, unlike smoke - which can be easily detected by the nose - carbon monoxide is almost impossible to recognize through the senses alone.

As a result of this, safety experts point out that carbon monoxide alarms are extremely important to install. For as little $35, these detectors can distinguish when CO is in the home and how much of the gas is in the air at any one time. And similar to smoke detectors, it makes an audible sound when levels are dangerously high.

Certain symptoms suggest CO poisoning

Even though these detectors can prevent serious injury and health complications, it's not unusual for people to experience symptoms of CO should they have inhaled it while they were asleep. Health experts say that the typical signs are similar to what people may experience when they have the flu, such as a headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, feelings of nausea and vertigo. Any combination of these symptoms should be communicated to a doctor, especially if they're severe, such as mental confusion and nausea to the point of vomiting.

But CO doesn't materialize out of thin air; it has to come from something. Thus, homeowners need to be aware of what utilities in their home are capable of producing it. Traditionally, CO comes out of anything that produces heat, such as a charcoal grill, a gas range, fireplace, furnace and gas water heater. Charcoal grills and gas range should never be inside the house, but if people are grilling in an environment that isn't well ventilated, CO poisoning can result. Homeowners should be sure to check these devices for any signs of leakage.

People who are new to homeownership - or those who are unfamiliar with utility maintenance - may understandably not be familiar with what to look for that suggests a furnace is in disrepair. Having a home inspection done professionally can not only help homeowners know if their health is at risk but professionals can point out what to look for so that the resident can do their own inspection the next time around. However, it's wise to have a professional home inspection done annually to ensure that nothing has been missed.