Rock Rapids, IA – Dorene Weinstein, Argus Leader – Amy and Chuck Meiburg thought their family had a brutal case of the flu last winter.

Amy woke up with a severe headache, her two children were sick and Chuck was lightheaded.

“We would try to make it to the phone (to call for help) and get as far as the dining room,” she says. “You’d see the light (coming through the window) and it’d bring you to your knees, we got so dizzy. So we’d lay down and try again an hour later.”

When the rural Rock Rapids, Iowa, family called a nurse hot line, the message was clear: Get out of the house. “She said if we didn’t have fevers, it could be carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Now, Amy and Chuck are grateful they and their children are alive after encountering the deadly gas.

The Meiburgs ended up in the hospital overnight, receiving two hyperbaric treatments each in a process that helps remove the poisonous gas from blood. They were lucky, they say, and hope their experience can be a lesson to others.

Turning on the furnace or another heating source this fall can be risky if the heaters haven’t been checked recently. “If we would have fallen asleep, we would’ve been goners,” Amy Meiburg says.

But there are steps people can take to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is a naturally occurring byproduct of combustion that mixes easily with air, says Perry Volden, the Sioux Falls fire marshal. The gas is tasteless and odorless and produced by fireplaces, gas dryers, hot-water heaters, wood-burning stoves, portable heaters run by petroleum fuel or natural gas and charcoal grills. If the system isn’t ventilated properly or working properly, the gas can build up.

After their experience with carbon monoxide, the Meiburgs replaced their faulty furnace and added three carbon monoxide detectors, which can increase the chance for early detection. Some detectors also work as smoke detectors, Volden says. They should be replaced every five years; even if a sensor tests OK after that, it still may not be fully functional.

Also, change furnace filters regularly, and have the furnace checked if it is more than 2 years old. Never try to heat a garage with a grill, Volden says.

It takes about an hour to examine the furnace, which involves checking the carbon monoxide level, gas pressure and venting and looking for gas leaks, says Greg Lorenzen, service manager at Howe Heating & Plumbing in Sioux Falls.

“Every year, we find a few cracked heat exchangers,” which can lead to a buildup of carbon monoxide, Lorenzen says.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning mimic those related to the flu and colds. If the whole family has similar symptoms while at home – such as dizziness, nausea and irregular breathing but no fever – but feel fine while away, the culprit could be carbon monoxide.

If symptoms persist, leave the house and call 911, Volden says. “We have equipment that can detect any problems.”

The Meiburgs took themselves to the hospital, but “I don’t remember how we got there,” Amy says.

The normal level of carbon monoxide in the body is less than 3 percent. “My husband’s level was more than 30,” she says.

After a victim has been treated, however, the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning can last up to two years, Amy Meiburg says.

The family still experiences sudden dizzy spells and short-term memory disturbances, she says. “Every day, we’re thankful we’re here. But we’ve had many sleepless nights since then. You check on your kids, make sure they’re breathing. You have that fear in you now.”