What is smoke inhalation?

When you breathe in the products of combustion during a fire, smoke inhalation will happen. Combustion is come from the rapid breakdown of a substance by high temperature (more commonly called burning).

Smoke is a mixture of heated particles and gases. When a fire is produced, we cannot predict the exact composition of smoke. Many factors such as: The products being burned, the temperature of the fire, and the amount of oxygen available to the fire all, make a difference in the type of smoke produced.

Smoke inhalation is the top reason of death because of fires. It create severe injury through several mechanisms, including thermal injury to the upper airway, irritation or chemical injury to the airways from soot, asphyxiation, and toxicity from carbon monoxide (CO) and other gases such as cyanide.

How common is smoke inhalation?

The number one cause of death related to fires is smoke inhalation. An estimated 50%-80% of fire deaths are the result of smoke inhalation injuries rather than burns. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of smoke inhalation?

Findings on physical examination may include the following:

  • Facial burns
  • Blistering or edema of the oropharynx
  • Hoarseness
  • Stridor
  • Upper airway mucosal lesions
  • Carbonaceous sputum

Symptoms of lower respiratory tract injury include the following:

  • Tachypnea
  • Dyspnea
  • Cough
  • Decreased breath sounds
  • Wheezing
  • Rales
  • Rhonchi

Findings in patients exposed to asphyxiants may include the following:

  • CNS depression, lethargy, and obtundation
  • Irritability, severe temporal headache, and generalized muscle weakness
  • Coma (nearly always from CO poisoning)

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.


When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Hoarse voice
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drawn out coughing spells
  • Mental confusion


What causes smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation causes the body to be damaged by simple asphyxiation (lack of oxygen), chemical or thermal irritation, chemical asphyxiation, or a combination of these.

Simple asphyxiants

  • Combustion can use up oxygen near the fire and lead to death when there is no oxygen left to breathe
  • Smoke itself can consist of products that do not cause direct harm to you, but that take up the space needed for oxygen for example: carbon dioxide.

Irritant compounds

  • Combustion can be the result of the formation of chemicals that cause direct injury when they contact your skin and mucous membranes. These substances disrupt the normal lining of the respiratory tract.
  • This disruption can potentially cause swelling, airway collapse, and respiratory distress.

Chemical asphyxiants

  • A fire can produce compounds that do damage by interfering with your body’s oxygen use at a cellular level.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.


How is smoke inhalation diagnosed?

Studies may include the following:

  • Pulse oximetry and CO-oximetry
  • Arterial blood gases (ABGs)
  • Carboxyhemoglobin level
  • Lactate
  • CBC
  • Chest radiography (in patients with significant exposure or pulmonary symptoms)
  • ECG
  • Serial cardiac enzymes (in patients with chest pain)
  • Pulmonary function testing
  • Direct laryngoscopy and fiberoptic bronchoscopy

Carboxyhemoglobin levels in the blood and the corresponding clinical manifestations are as follows:

  • 0-10% – Usually no symptoms
  • 10-20% – Mild headache, atypical dyspnea
  • 20-30% – Throbbing headache, impaired concentration
  • 30-40% – Severe headache, impaired thinking
  • 40-50% – Confusion, lethargy, syncope
  • 50-60% – Respiratory failure, seizures
  • >70% – Coma, death

How is smoke inhalation treated?

Self-Care at Home

  • Remove the person with smoke inhalation from the scene to a location with clean air.
  • Make sure that you avoid yourself in danger before you attempt to pull someone from a smoke-filled environment

Medical Treatment

  • Oxygen: Oxygen is the mainstay of treatment. It may be put in the body by a nose tube or mask or through a tube put down the throat. If there are signs of upper airway problems, for example hoarseness, the person may need to be intubated.
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Hyperbaric oxygenation (HBO): If the person has carbon monoxide poisoning, hyperbaric oxygenation may be considered.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage smoke inhalation?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with smoke inhalation:

  • You should avoid all problems with smoke inhalation and fires.
  • If you are in a smoky area again, get out as soon as possible and into fresh air.
  • To keep from breathing in smoke, crawl quickly beneath it on the floor to get out.
  • Do not return to the area of the fire until it has been put out and all the smoke is gone.
  • Following guidelines to prevent house fires.
  • Place working smoke detectors through out your house.
  • Make an escape plan in case of a fire in your home. Practice it often with your family.
  • Buy “flame-retardant” clothing for children.
  • Never smoke or let others smoke in your house. Do not leave matches or lighters in the reach of children,
  • Being extra careful around Christmas trees, portable heaters, and open fires Moreover, you should open fires in fireplaces and wood-burning stoves.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Review Date: September 5, 2017 | Last Modified: September 5, 2017

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