Is it flu or carbon monoxide poisoning? Getting the two confused can be fatal


The mercury is dropping and flu season is picking up. It can be a confusing and deadly combination.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can be emitted by a number of appliances, including improperly ventilated stoves, gas ranges, heating systems, gasoline engines and grills, as well as burning wood. The fumes can build up to toxic levels without anyone in the home realizing it.

To make matters worse, a person exposed to carbon monoxide can easily dismiss the initial symptoms simply as a case of the flu. They feel sick, fall asleep and then never wake up.

That’s why it’s so important to know the similarities and differences.

“Both carbon monoxide poisoning and flu share common symptoms, including headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, chest pain, weakness and dizziness,” said Ashley Webb, director of the Kentucky Poison Control Center, which gets more than 200 calls about carbon monoxide poisoning every year. “However, the flu often comes with a fever.”

Webb said as carbon monoxide poisoning progresses, more severe symptoms may include fainting, difficulty thinking clearly, increased heart rate, and eventually loss of consciousness and convulsions.

“The best method for preventing carbon monoxide poisoning is to install carbon monoxide detectors in your home,” Webb said. “We encourage families to install a detector on every level of the house and preferably near bedrooms and the furnace.”

The alarm on the detector should sound at least 85 decibels and give family members ample time to ventilate or leave the home and call 911. If the detectors are battery-powered, the batteries should be tested twice a year, at the same time the home’s smoke detectors are tested.

Following these other precautions can also save your family’s lives:

Have a professional install your home heating system and inspect it at the beginning of each winter. All flues and chimneys should be checked for cracks, corrosion, holes, debris and blockages.

Make sure that space heaters are properly vented.

Before using the fireplace, check for closed or blocked flues and accumulated soot or debris in the chimney.

Never operate gas-powered engines in confined spaces.

Never let a car run in an attached garage, even if the garage door is open.

Gas or charcoal barbecue grills should never be used indoors, including inside a garage.

Look for a yellow flame. Check the color of the gas burner flames and pilot lights. A yellow-colored flame indicates the fuel isn’t burning efficiently and could be releasing higher than usual amounts of carbon monoxide. A properly burning flame should be blue.

If a portable generator is being used, it should be more than 15 feet outside the home or garage, away from windows and not covered by a roof or awning to prevent exhaust from coming into the home.

The Kentucky Poison Control Center can answer your questions about carbon monoxide and help you determine if you have been exposed to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Call the poison center’s hotline at (800) 222-1222.

About the Kentucky Poison Control Center

The primary mission of the Kentucky Poison Control Center of is to reduce illness and death from poisoning in Kentucky. On average, the poison control center’s hotline at (800) 222-1222 receives nearly 60,000 calls annually, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Three of every four patients from those calls are successfully managed safely and inexpensively at home, reducing unnecessary emergency room visits and/or shortening hospital stays. More information is available at KYPoisonControl.com.

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