More than half of fire-related deaths result from smoke inhalation, according to the Burn Institute. Smoke inhalation occurs when you breathe in harmful smoke particles and gases. Inhaling harmful smoke can inflame your lungs and airway, causing them to swell and block oxygen. This can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome and respiratory failure.
Smoke inhalation commonly happens when you get trapped in a contained area, such as a kitchen or home, near a fire. Most fires occur in the home, often from cooking, fireplaces and space heaters, electrical malfunctions, and smoking.
What causes smoke inhalation?
Burning materials, chemicals, and the gases created can cause smoke inhalation by simple asphyxiation (lack of oxygen), chemical irritation, chemical asphyxiation, or a combination of them. Examples include:
There are two ways that smoke can deprive you of oxygen. Combustion uses up the oxygen near a fire, leaving you without oxygen to breathe. Smoke also contains products, such as carbon dioxide, that cause harm by further limiting the amount of oxygen in the air.
Combustion can cause chemicals to form that injure your skin and mucous membranes. These chemicals can damage your respiratory tract, causing swelling and airway collapse. Ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and chlorine are examples of chemical irritants in smoke.
Compounds produced in fires can cause cell damage in your body by interfering with the delivery or use of oxygen. Carbon monoxide, which is the leading cause of death in smoke inhalation, is one of these compounds.
Inhalation injuries can worsen heart and lung conditions, such as:
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease asthma emphysema chronic bronchitis
Your risk for permanent damage from smoke inhalation is greater if you have any of these conditions.
Smoke inhalation symptoms
Smoke inhalation can cause several signs and symptoms that can range in severity.
The mucous membranes in your respiratory tract secrete more mucus when they become irritated.
Increased mucus production and the tightening of the muscles in your airway lead to reflex coughing.
Mucus may be clear, gray, or black depending on the volume of burned particles in your trachea or lungs.
Shortness of breath
Injury to your respiratory tract decreases oxygen delivery to your blood.
Smoke inhalation can interfere with your blood’s ability to carry oxygen.
Rapid breathing can result from an attempt to compensate for the damage done to the body.
Exposure to carbon monoxide, which occurs in every fire, can cause headache.
Along with headache, carbon monoxide poisoning can also cause nausea and vomiting.
Hoarseness or noisy breathing
Chemicals may irritate and injure your vocal chords and cause swelling and tightening of the upper airways.
Fluids may collect in the upper airway and result in a blockage.
Skin can be pale and bluish due to lack of oxygen, or bright red due to carbon monoxide poisoning
There may be burns on your skin.
Smoke can irritate your eyes and cause redness.
Your corneas may have burns.
Low oxygen levels and chemical asphyxiates can cause changes such as confusion, fainting, and decreased alertness.
Seizures and coma are also possible after smoke inhalation.
Soot in the nose or throat
Soot in your nostrils or throat are an indicator of smoke inhalation and the extent of the smoke inhalation.
Swollen nostrils and nasal passages are also a sign of inhalation.
Chest pain can be caused by irritation in your respiratory tract.
Chest pain can be a result of low oxygen flow to the heart.
Excessive coughing can also cause chest pain.
Heart and lung conditions can be made worse by smoke inhalation and can cause chest pain.
Smoke inhalation first aid
WARNING: Anyone who experiences smoke inhalation requires immediate first aid. Here’s what to do:
Call 911 for emergency medical assistance.
Remove the person from the smoke-filled area if it’s safe to do so and move them to a location with clean air.
Check the person’s circulation, airway, and breathing.
Start CPR, if necessary, while waiting for emergency help to arrive.
If you or someone else experiences the following smoke inhalation symptoms, call 911:
Smoke inhalation can worsen quickly and affect more than just your respiratory tract. You should call 911 instead of driving yourself or someone else to the nearest emergency department. Receiving emergency medical help reduces your risk for serious injury or death.