Smoke Inhalation

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation occurs when smoke from a fire is inhaled through the nose or mouth, causing damage to the airways and lungs. Smoke inhalation affects the respiratory system. Infants, young children, and the elderly are more prone to complications from smoke inhalation. Firefighters and other workers frequently exposed to smoke may face decreased life expectancy from prolonged smoke inhalation.

Signs and symptoms of smoke inhalation include wheezing, difficulty breathing, cough, or runny nose. Symptoms may be evident soon after inhaling smoke and may come on suddenly. Odorless smoke, such as carbon monoxide, can cause poisoning in the body. Suffocation from smoke can also occur.

Treatment for smoke inhalation may consist of oxygen therapy, ventilators, and medications that help open the airway passages. Smoke inhalation can cause more serious damage in people with a prior history of asthma or chronic lung disease.

You should seek immediate medical care if you or someone you are with is experiencing shortness of breath, severe wheezing, or trouble speaking.

What are the symptoms of smoke inhalation?

Symptoms of smoke inhalation may vary depending on what kind of smoke or irritant the person inhales. Some types of smoke, such as carbon monoxide, may be more life-threatening than others. The amount or duration of smoke inhaled can also affect the severity of symptoms.

Common symptoms of smoke inhalation

The most common symptoms of smoke inhalation are:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, smoke inhalation can be fatal. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Difficulty breathing, choking, wheezing

  • Changes in mental state, such as confusion or lethargy

What causes smoke inhalation?

Smoke is composed of a mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood or other organic materials burn. These particles infiltrate the lungs causing disease and breathing difficulties.

Smoke inhalation is caused by prolonged exposure to smoke from a fire, household chemicals, or irritants. Smoke is inhaled through the nose or mouth and travels through the windpipe and into the lungs, causing burns and damage to breathing structures.

What are the risk factors for smoke inhalation?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing smoke inhalation. Some people may be more at risk for smoke inhalation and complications than others. People more at risk for smoke inhalation include:

  • Older adults

  • People who are pregnant

  • Children

  • People with heart or lung disease

  • People with diabetes

How do you prevent smoke inhalation?

Preparing for fire season if you live in a fire-prone area can help reduce your risk of smoke inhalation. During a fire, stay indoors and wear a particulate mask such as an N95 mask. You may be able to prevent or lower your risk of smoke inhalation in other ways by:

  • Having your medication on hand if you have asthma, heart, or lung disease

  • Having a supply of N95 or P100 masks on hand

  • Buying an air cleaner to reduce particle levels indoors

  • Paying attention to local air quality reports during a fire

  • Avoiding outdoor areas that look or smell smoky

  • Making sure household carbon monoxide detectors are working

See your doctor regularly if you have asthma or a heart or lung condition that can increase your risk of complications from smoke inhalation.

How do doctors diagnose smoke inhalation?

Your doctor will perform a comprehensive exam for smoke inhalation and may order a few tests. These tests include:

  • Blood tests, to measure oxygen and carbon monoxide levels

  • Chest X-ray, to image the lungs for damage

  • Bronchoscopy, to directly visualize damage to the lungs or surrounding structures

Your doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner may also ask you several questions related to your exposure to smoke including:

  • How long were you exposed to smoke?

  • What kind of smoke or gas were you exposed to?

  • Are you experiencing difficulty breathing, wheezing, or shortness of breath?

  • When do your symptoms occur?

  • Does anything make your symptoms better or worse?

  • Do you have lung disease?

What are the treatments for smoke inhalation?

Treatment for smoke inhalation depends on the extent and location of damage from the smoke. Goals of treatment are to improve oxygen saturation in the blood, minimize the extent of burns from smoke, and promote optimal breathing. Someone with smoke inhalation may need such treatments as:

  • An oxygen mask or nasal cannula

  • A breathing tube in cases where the trachea is burned and causes swelling

  • Medications called bronchodilators to help open airway passages

  • A breathing machine called a ventilator if you are unable to breath on your own

Home care after smoke inhalation treatment

After medical treatment for smoke inhalation, there are a few things you can do at home to help care for yourself and protect your respiratory system and overall health. These include:

  • Getting plenty of rest and sleep

  • Taking medications as prescribed

  • Not allowing others to smoke around you

  • Avoiding things that can irritate your lungs, such as cold or dry air

  • Using a spirometer to see how well your lungs are functioning

What are the potential complications of smoke inhalation?

Inhaling small amounts of smoke usually does not cause any serious harm. But prolonged or dense amounts of smoke inhalation has the potential to cause complications to the body and lungs. Some complications include:

  • Suffocation

  • Poisoning

  • Damage to breathing passages

  • Burns to the mouth or throat

  • Coma

Does smoke inhalation shorten life expectancy?

Smoke inhalation has the potential to cause more damage to infants, children, and the elderly population. Research shows that children exposed to smoke for five days have a two-fold increase in asthma rates. Older adults over age 65 could face a 40% increase in the rate of stroke as well as increased rate of heart attacks.

Smoke inhalation in pregnant people can damage the lungs and increase the risk of premature birth and decreased birth weight.

Experts have found that firefighters repeatedly exposed to wildfire smoke have a decreased life expectancy by about 10 years.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Dec 14
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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