As temperatures plunge, the risk rises for a persistent winter health hazard: carbon monoxide poisoning. Health officials are warning that the early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be mistaken for the flu. A mix up that could prove deadly.
Carbon monoxide poisoning sends several thousand people to emergency rooms each year.
Carbon monoxide, CO, is an invisible, odourless gas that can be emitted by appliances, including stoves, gas ranges and heaters. The fumes can build up to toxic levels without anyone in the home realizing it’s happening.
Compounding the threat is that a person exposed could easily dismiss the initial symptoms as simply the flu. Especially now, as flu season grips the nation, it’s important to be aware of the similarities and differences.
Both carbon monoxide poisoning and influenza share common symptoms including headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, chest pain, weakness and dizziness. However, the flu often comes with a fever.
As carbon monoxide poisoning progresses, severe symptoms may include fainting, increased heart rate, and eventually loss of consciousness and convulsions. Inhaling it can kill — and often quickly.
Because you can’t see or smell it without a carbon monoxide detector people don’t know they’ve been exposed until it’s too late.
Carbon monoxide is picked up by red blood cells in the body faster than oxygen. The body replaces oxygen with carbon monoxide when there’s a lot of this gas in the air. This prevents oxygen from entering the cells, which ultimately damages tissue and results in death. Carbon monoxide may also hitch a ride with proteins in tissue, and contribute to cellular death.
So what’s the best way to tell the difference between the seasonal flu and carbon monoxide poisoning? It may be as simple as grabbing a thermometer. Since a fever is a main symptom of the flu (but not CO poisoning). A temperature higher than 100 degrees may indicate influenza, but won’t occur if you’ve breathed in CO.
If you suspect you’ve been exposed to carbon monoxide, get to fresh air and seek medical help immediately.
To keep your loved ones safe during the chilly months, stay informed about ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:
- At least once a year, have your heating system, water heater and any other gas appliance serviced by a technician.
- Though it’s freezing, it may be prudent to leave a least one window slightly cracked to keep air ventilating.
- Install at least one carbon monoxide detector in every level in your home. Most current models of smoke detectors also include protection against carbon monoxide. Detectors should be placed near bedrooms and tested frequently. Replace batteries regularly.
- Make sure all gas appliances are sufficiently vented and never patch up a vent pipe with tape.
- Don’t use a gas range or oven for heating your home.
- Do not use outdoor appliances such as a charcoal grill, barbecue or power generator inside your home.
- Don’t run a car when you’re in a garage, since carbon monoxide can enter through cracks under doors and windows.
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