Can you tell the difference between a virus and carbon monoxide poisoning?

Dog adjusting comfort temperature on radiator

Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center urges families to take caution when using home heating appliances, know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning

Temperatures may not be much below freezing, but the chance of carbon monoxide poisoning in children and families still increases during the winter, when home heating appliances are used. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can be dangerous, if not fatal, should a heating appliance malfunction.

To make matters worse, carbon monoxide poisoning can go undetected, as symptoms typically mimic viral illness like the flu. Symptoms can include headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea and confusion. In severe cases, poisoning will rapidly lead to death. If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, immediately seek medical attention.

Each year between 2011 and 2013, the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center of Kosair Children’s Hospital received an average of 220 calls about carbon monoxide poisoning. Frequent use of home heating equipment, such as fireplaces, wood stoves, space heaters and kerosene heaters, are often the source of carbon monoxide poisoning incidents. However, refrigerators, clothes dryers, water heaters, charcoal grills, gas ranges and portable generators can also produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. A clogged chimney or improper venting can cause problems as well. 

“The best method for preventing carbon monoxide poisoning is to install carbon monoxide detectors in your home,” said Ashley Webb, Pharm.D., DABAT, director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center. “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 fire alarms are tested.

Families should also take the following precautionary measures during the colder winter months:

  • Have a professional install your home heating system and inspect it at the beginning of each winter season to ensure the furnace is in good working order and that exhaust gases can escape from the home properly. All flues and chimneys should be checked for cracks, corrosion, holes, debris and blockages.
  • Make sure that space heaters are vented properly.
  • Before use, check fireplaces for closed or blocked flues and accumulated soot or debris in the chimney.
  • Never operate gas-powered engines in confined spaces. Remember to never let a car run in an attached garage, even if the garage door is open.
  • Ensure that gas or charcoal barbecue grills are never operated indoors, including inside a garage, under any circumstances.
  • Have your household fuel-burning appliances checked. Look at the color of the gas burner flames and pilot lights. A yellow-colored flame (the flame should be blue) indicates the fuel isn’t burning efficiently and could be releasing higher than usual amounts of carbon monoxide.
  • 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.
  • Never use the stove or gas or charcoal grills to heat the inside of your home.

The Kentucky Regional 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.

Contributed by Maggie Roetker, Norton Healthcare media relations.