Smoke inhalation: What you need to know

Firefighters – iStock
Firefighters – iStock

Smoke inhalation is the leading cause of death related to fires. It damages the body as a result of lack of oxygen and chemical irritation.

In a study published on PubMed, Treatment strategies for acute smoke inhalation injury, they state that most fatalities from fires are not due to burns, but are a result of inhalation of toxic gases produced during combustion. Fire produces a complex toxic environment, involving flame, heat, oxygen depletion, smoke and toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and cyanide.

As a wide variety of synthetic materials is used in buildings, such as insulation, furniture, carpeting, electric wiring covering as well as decorative items, the potential for poisoning from inhalation of products of combustion is continuously increasing. 

In a case of a wild- or bush fire where particles are released into the air, unburned, partially burned, and completely burned substances can be so small they penetrate the respiratory system’s protective filters, and lodge in the lungs. Some are actively toxic; others are irritating to the eyes and digestive system.

Heat is also a respiratory hazard, as superheated gases burn the respiratory tract. When the air is hot enough, one breath can kill.

Firefighters, who are exposed frequently to smoke, have been examined for long-term health effects (for example, cancer, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease) of repeated smoke exposures. Though findings are not consistent or conclusive, some studies show an increased frequency of these diseases among firefighters compared to similar male reference populations (e.g., male policemen, white males in the general population), while others do not.


Symptoms include hoarseness, coughing, noisy breathing, black or grey spittle, and fluid in the lungs. Lack of oxygen is evident from shortness of breath and blue-grey or cherry-red skin colour.

The person may be unconscious or may stop breathing. There may also be burns around and inside the nose and mouth, singed nasal hairs and internal swelling of the throat.

Home treatment

  • Get the person into fresh air immediately.
  • The person should rest while taking deep breaths.

Call your doctor if:

  • There are any signs of wheezing, trouble breathing, a continuous cough, an upset stomach or vomiting. The person will need oxygen as soon as possible.
  • The person develops a high temperature and/or becomes confused, irritable or unusually sleepy.

Read more: Learn CPR

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