CAUTION: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
can Sometimes Mimic Flu Symptoms
Actually coming down with the flu is not the only health danger that comes with influenza season, health experts warn. That’s because carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, particularly prevalent in winter due to closed up homes and heating systems, often mimics the symptoms of the flu.
"Carbon monoxide is a deadly, odorless, invisible gas," notes Charles Pattavina MD, medical director of the St. Joseph Hospital Emergency Department. “It is produced whenever any fuel such as natural gas, propane, fuel oil, gasoline, kerosene, wood or coal is burned.” In winter the gas can become concentrated in closed-in areas, particularly where heating appliances are not working correctly or not ventilated properly.
During flu season particularly, CO can all too easily be mistaken for the flu, since symptoms are so similar. Dr. Pattavina suggests that any flu-like symptoms could instead be signs of CO poisoning if:
- You feel better when you are away from your home.
- More than one person in the home gets sick at the same time (it usually takes several days for the flu to pass from person to person).
- Family members who are most affected spend the most time in the home.
- Symptoms occur or get worse shortly after turning on a fuel-burning device.
- Indoor pets also appear ill, exhibiting symptoms such as drowsiness and lethargy (human flu viruses are not transmitted to pets).
- You don’t have generalized aching, low-grade fever, or swollen lymph nodes (these are typical of a cold or flu).
Nationwide, approximately 500 deaths and 15,000 visits to emergency rooms occur annually due to unintentional CO poisoning. Older adults over 65 years of age are especially vulnerable to accidental CO poisoning due to their high frequency of pre-existing medical conditions. While CO alarms can save lives, less than one third of American homes have them installed.
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