Watch for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning This Winter


Carbon monoxide poisoning can mimic flu-like symptoms.

As temperatures fall, flu symptoms and related complaints are sure to make their appearance.

Many pharmacists may be tuned into influenza through counseling and immunization, but it is also important to remember that carbon monoxide poisoning can mimic many flu-like symptoms and thus go undetected.

During the winter months, exposures to carbon monoxide typically occur as a result of attempting to heat a living space with charcoal, wood, or natural gas without proper ventilation. In most circumstances, these heating methods are not used. But, during winter snow and ice storms or other natural disasters where power outages are common, the burning of these carbon-containing fuel sources puts individuals and whomever they share their space with at risk.

The flu-like symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure can cause many clinicians to overlook this diagnosis, especially in wintertime.

Headache, dizziness, and nausea occur early on in acute carbon monoxide exposure. As exposure continues, symptoms become more severe.

These symptoms pertain to the pathophysiologic mechanism of carbon monoxide poisoning by binding to hemoglobin and preventing oxygen delivery to the cells, yielding effects like vomiting, dyspnea, cardiac dysrhythmias, and myocardial infarction.

Inquiring about heating sources at home or other places where the patient sleeps is crucial to identify carbon monoxide exposure. Multiple family members or groups of individuals sharing a small space who present to the pharmacy at similar times with similar symptoms should be a clue to inquire about potential carbon monoxide exposures.

Local and regional poison control centers are available for consultations at any time if you have concerns (1-800-222-1222). Early recognition of carbon monoxide poisoning can increase the likelihood of favorable patient outcomes and reduction in morbidity.

With winter comes flu season, but don’t forget about the deadly, colorless, odorless gas that can mimic flu-like presentations. Regardless of practice setting, pharmacists everywhere can help identify patients exposed to carbon monoxide.

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