Smoke inhalation means you’ve breathed in smoke containing harmful gases, vapors and particulate matter. Inhaling smoke, rather than burns, is the cause of most fire related deaths because dangerous fumes can overcome you in just a matter of minutes.
Typically, inhaling a small bit of diffuse smoke won’t cause much in the way of side effects. However, sustained smoke inhalation or inhaling smoke highly concentrated in certain poisonous chemicals can cause serious long lasting health effects, even death. Examples of toxic chemicals that can cause health problems are:
The composition of smoke is a unique for every fire. It’s complex mixture depends on the nature of what’s being burned and the environmental conditions, e.g. amount of available oxygen.
Under certain conditions, you may be more sensitive to the side effects of inhaling smoke, for instance if you are:
- cigarette smoker
- infant, young child, elderly, pregnant
- sufferer of a respiratory condition ~ respiratory infection, asthma, COPD (chronic bronchitis, emphysema)
- stricken by previous cardiovascular problems ~ heart attack, angina, CAD, congestive heart failure, stroke
Smoke causes side effects via a combination of heat damage, pulmonary irritation, oxygen deprivation (asphyxiation) and poisoning. Signs and symptoms indicating your smoke exposure and inhalation could be extensive enough to cause health effects include:
- chest pain
- runny nose
- burning eyes
- vision trouble
- talking difficulty
- persistent cough
- feel like passing out
- problems swallowing
- throat irritation, swelling
- confusion, disorientation
- severe, intense headache
- sudden overwhelming fatigue
- facial & peripheral numbness or weakness
- singed nasal hairs, burns around, inside nose & mouth
Should you experience any of these signs and symptoms, contact a health care provider on scene for evaluation. Smoke inhalation can be assessed by using a bronchoscope for throat effects, chest x-ray for lung effects and testing your blood oxygen level.
Initial treatment after inhaling smoke is providing oxygen through a face mask. In addition, drugs to open your airway (bronchodilator) can be administered as a mist with this oxygen if necessary.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be used to treat severe carbon monoxide or cyanide poisoning smoke inhalation because this treatment allows for your body to receive more oxygen faster to combat or prevent:
Various other treatment are available depending on the severity of your health side effects caused by inhaling smoke.
Because smoke inhalation can cause serious health effects, there are some measures you can take to reduce the health risks associated with inhaling smoke, like:
- stay low to the ground because smoke rises
- cover mouth & noses with cloth, moist if possible
- evacuate the area immediately without stopping for belongings
- if you do catch on fire, “stop, drop and roll” to extinguish flames
- never go back into a burning building after you’ve reached safety
If you live in areas where the air is polluted by smoke, e.g. forest fire, then:
- refrain from exercising outdoors
- set all air conditioners on recirculate
- breathe through a damp cloth whenever in thick smoke
- keep windows & vents closed when driving though smoky areas
- remain indoors to avoid inhalation of smoke, ash, particulate matter
Although most recover fully from smoke inhalation. Some do experience chronic pulmonary health problems following an episode of inhaling smoke. And prior chronic respiratory conditions can worsen due to an inhalation injury.