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Firefighters' Warning: Don't Mistake Carbon Monoxide Symptoms for the Flu

Both have very similar symptoms, here's the easiest way to tell the difference.

The carbon monoxide deaths of two Clairton men last week, blamed on a broken furnace, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette , is prompting a new round of warnings from area firefighters.

In McCandless, firefighters average about 30 calls a year for suspected carbon monoxide problems. About 10 of those calls reveal people with symptoms, or homes with elevated readings, according to Shawn P. O’Brien, deputy fire chief of the Highland Fire Company Station No. 186.

In Cranberry, fire administrator Mark Nanna said the Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company runs about 29 calls per year for carbon monoxide complaints. In most cases, Nanna said the calls turn out to be bad detectors or CO detectors with dead batteries.

"Very seldom do we have anyone with symptoms," he said.

But not always.

With the onset of the flu season, O'Brien worries that some people might confuse CO poisoning for the flu.

"CO symptoms include headache, dizziness, fatigue/drowsiness, nausea, weakness, vomiting, and confusion," said O’Brien. "These are all the same signs of other illnesses—including the flu. People could confuse CO symptoms with flu symptoms and not realize they are being poisoned by CO."

Nanna said people with CO poisoning often have a headache first, followed by nausea.

"It feels just like getting a cold," he said. "They're very close."

Nanna said sickened pets and small children are another sign to watch for with carbon monoxide poisoning. Because they are smaller than adults, animals and children often will exhibit symptoms, including vomiting and tiredness, first.

"If you've got a pet that’s usually bouncing around like a gum ball and now he's throwing up or sick for no reason, and you’re feeling bad, that might be something to look at," he said.

O'Brien said the only way to know if you have a carbon monoxide problem is to install a carbon monoxide detector, which costs about $25 to $30, in your home. Unfortunately, some homeowners don't know the correct place to put them.

"Many residents place them in the basement near the furnace or hot water tank but that creates exposures that they won’t hear it or a residual amount of CO could activate it," O'Brien said. "The best protection is to have it near where you are sleeping so that it will alert you throughout the night."

Nanna recommended having a CO detector on every floor of the home. He also suggested that homeowners change their detector batteries at the same time they change their clocks for Daylight Saving Time in the spring and the fall.

"Everybody remembers to change their clocks," he said. "Just do your fire detectors and your CO detectors at the same time."

When changing CO detector batteries, Nanna suggested sticking a piece of tape with the date written on it to the back of the battery so you'll know for sure the last time it was changed.  

Below are the most common causes of carbon monoxide in the home.

  • Vehicles left running in a garage.
  • Malfunctioning furnaces.
  • Hot water tanks (there have been incidents where stink bugs have clogged exhaust flues causing CO to be pushed back into the home).
  • Alternative sources of heat that depend on natural gas, propane, or any liquid fuel.

O'Brien says if your CO detector goes off, immediately leave your home and call 9-1-1.

"If you feel you’re having a problem and your detector goes off, the thing to do is to get out the house and leave it alone," Nanna added.

If you're worried about CO issues in your home, Nanna said gas companies also will come to residences to check all appliances for gas leaks—free of charge.

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