Smoke Inhalation

According to the Burn Institute, smoke inhalation is responsible for more than half of all fire-related deaths. Inhaling harmful gases and particles from smoke is known as smoke inhalation. Inhaling toxic smoke can cause inflammation in your lungs, which can lead to swelling and blocking of oxygen. This can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome or respiratory failure.

Inhaling smoke is most common when you are trapped near a fire. Fires most often occur in the home due to cooking, fireplaces, space heaters, electrical malfunctions and smoking.

What Causes Smoke Inhalation?

The inhalation of smoke from burning materials or chemicals can be caused by simple asphyxiation (lack oxygen), chemical irritation (or a combination thereof). Examples include:

Simple asphyxiates

Smoke can make you sick in two ways. Smoke can cause you to lose oxygen by burning the oxygen around a fire. The harmful effects of smoke, which also includes carbon dioxide, can be further limited by the oxygen levels in the air.

Irritant compounds

The combustion of fuel can produce chemicals that can injure your skin or mucous membranes. These chemicals can cause swelling and even collapse of your airways, which can lead to respiratory problems. Examples of chemical irritants found in smoke include chlorine, sulfur dioxide and ammonia.

Asphyxiating chemicals

By interfering in the delivery and use of oxygen, compounds produced by fires can damage cells. One of these compounds is carbon monoxide. This is the most common cause of death from smoke inhalation.

Inhalation injuries can cause lung and heart problems, including:

Chronic obstructive lung disease



Chronic bronchitis

Smoke inhalation can cause permanent damage.

Inhalation of smoke symptoms

Inhaling smoke can cause a variety of symptoms, which can vary in severity.


When they are irritated, the mucous membranes of your respiratory tract produce more mucus.

Reflex coughing is caused by an increase in mucus production and tightening the muscles of your airway.

The volume of the burned particles in your trachea and lungs can affect how clear or gray your mucus is.

Breathing difficulties

Inflicting injury on your respiratory tract can reduce oxygen delivery to your blood.

Inhaling smoke can cause your blood to lose oxygen.

Rapid breathing is a sign that the body is trying to repair the damage.


Headache can result from exposure to carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide poisoning may cause headaches, nausea, and vomiting.

First aid for smoke inhalation

WARNING: Smoke inhalation is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. Here are some things to do:

For emergency medical assistance, dial 911.

If possible, remove the person from the area that is smoke-filled and then move them to an area with clean air.

Examine the circulation, breathing, and airway of the individual.

While you wait for emergency help, start CPR if needed.

Call 911 if you or someone you know experiences any of the following symptoms from smoke inhalation.


Trouble breathing


There is confusion

Inhaling smoke can quickly make your condition worse and cause more damage than you realize. Instead of driving to an emergency room, you should dial 911. You are less likely to be seriously injured or even killed if you call 911 for emergency medical assistance.

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