Smoke Inhalation Injury

General information about acute smoke inhalation injury

What is smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation is when you breathe in harmful smoke from burning materials and gases. Harmful smoke experienced up close, such as in a burning building, may contain chemicals or poisons, such as carbon monoxide and cyanide. When you inhale this harmful smoke, your lungs and airway may become irritated, swollen, and blocked. The damaged airway and lungs prevent oxygen from getting into your blood, and respiratory failure may develop. Respiratory failure means you cannot breathe well enough to get oxygen to the cells of your body.

What causes smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation most commonly happens when you get trapped inside a burning structure, such as a house, office building, or factory. The harmful chemicals found in smoke may come from burning rubber, melamine, coal, plastic, or electrical wiring.  Smoke inhalation may also happen if you are near a burning forest. The highest concentrations of harmful chemicals often occur after the main fire, when building or wood are smoldering.

What are the signs and symptoms of smoke inhalation?

The signs and symptoms of smoke inhalation depend on the source of the smoke and how long you were exposed to the smoke:

  • Airway burns, causing throat pain, hoarse voice, and noisy breathing.  Patients with severe airway burns almost always have burns to face and head, or severe burns elsewhere on the body.  It is more common for smoke to cause mild throat irritation, which is not a sign of a significant burn to the airway.

  • Chest pain or cough

  • Shortness of breath, in particular in asthmatics and others prone to bronchospasm

  • Headache, abdominal pain, and nausea

  • Eye irritation or vision problems

  • Fainting

  • Soot in your nostrils or throat

How is smoke inhalation diagnosed?

Caregivers will ask you about the source of the smoke that you inhaled. They will also ask about the amount of time that you were exposed to the smoke. You may need further testing including blood tests, chest X-Ray, bronchoscopy, or pulmonary function testing if your exposure was significant.

How is smoke inhalation treated?

  • Antidotes: These are substances that may stop or control the effects of the smoke you inhaled. Caregivers may give different antidotes depending on the type of smoke you inhaled.

  • Bronchodilators: You may need bronchodilators like albuterol to help open the air passages in your lungs, and help you breathe more easily.

  • Steroids: Steroid medicine may help to open your air passages so you can breathe easier.

  • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.

  • Medicines to treat pain, swelling, or fever.

What are the risks of smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation can be a serious injury, and evaluation and treatment is needed as soon as possible. If it is not treated early, the smoke may damage your lungs and cause breathing problems, and in worst cases may lead to respiratory failure. This may affect your heart and brain, and it may be life-threatening.

How can smoke inhalation be prevented?

To prevent fires, make sure that electrical wiring, chimneys, wood stoves, and space heaters are working properly. Use flammable liquids safely and store them in a locked area out of the reach of children.

Do not leave lit cigarettes unattended, and discard them properly. Keep cigarette lighters and matches in a safe place where children cannot reach them.

Make an escape plan in case a fire breaks out in your home. Practice it often with your family. Crawl on the floor to escape a burning building. The air will be cooler and cleaner.

Use smoke detectors in your house, and check them regularly to make sure they are working.