Carbon-monoxide poisoning can mimic flu symptoms

Consumer Reports News: January 07, 2010 10:57 AM

Carbon-monoxide poisoning spikes in winter months, partly because common heating sources can produce the deadly colorless and odorless gas. As our Home blog noted this week, the symptoms, which include headache, dizziness, chest pain, nausea and vomiting, can mimic flu symptoms. But it's important not to mistake it for the swine flu; the treatments couldn't be more different.

For typical flu symptoms most people should stay at home, rest, drink lots of fluids, and control fever and pain with acetaminophen (Tylenol and generics) or ibuprofen (Advil and generics). (Anyone with underlying health conditions should contact their health care provider about how best to proceed, and emergency symptoms always merit a trip to the ER.) But staying in a home with a carbon-monoxide leak could kill you. Almost 500 Americans die each year from accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning, and some estimate that more than 50,000 are treated in emergency rooms.

Adding to the potential confusion, both the flu and carbon-monoxide poisoning are at their most common during the same time of year, when the cold, dry air makes it easier for the virus to spread, and when winter weather can block ventilation systems trapping carbon monoxide inside.

Our Chief Medical Advisor, Marvin Lipman M.D., remembers a close call faced by two of his patients:
"One winter night several years ago, I was awakened at 3 a.m. by a call from the emergency room about two patients, a middle-aged dentist and his wife. They had eaten dinner that night at a local restaurant, returned to their apartment at about 11 p.m., fed the cat, and went to bed. An hour or so later, they both awoke with nausea and headache severe enough to prompt the ER visit. Since they had eaten identical meals, the ER physician suspected a food-borne infection. After treatment with antinausea medication and intravenous fluids, the couple felt better and were sent home. I complimented the ER doctor on a job well done and hung up, thankful there was no need for me to venture forth into the cold.

Shortly after drifting back to sleep, I was again jolted awake by a ringing phone. This time it was the dentist himself. He and his wife were again feeling ill. Indeed, the wife was not only headachy and nauseated but was crying hysterically because, on their arrival home from the ER, they had found their cat dead. A light clicked on in my brain. I told them to open all the windows and phone 911 immediately. By the time I met them at the ER, it was clear my suspicion of carbon monoxide poisoning was correct. Had they remained at home, they would have died."
Firefighters found increased levels of carbon monoxide in the apartment, but no apparent source. Upon inspection, they found the kitchen stove on in an adjacent apartment, which shared a vent. Sadly, the elderly woman who occupied that apartment was dead.

Preventing carbon-monoxide poisoning is a crucial first step. The best way is to keep your heating system and chimneys in good working condition. Read how to protect yourself against carbon-monoxide poisoning. Then make sure you catch any leak before it's too late by installing carbon monoxide alarms. Check out our free carbon monoxide alarm buyer's guide, and Ratings (subscribers only).

And keep up with our swine flu coverage for more on preventing and treating the flu.

—Kevin McCarthy, associate editor

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