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Understanding and Treating the Effects of Smoke Inhalation Brief Description: If you have survived a fire, you may be worried about your home and your possessions, when you should be worried about your health. This article suggests the harmful effects of smoke inhalation, and how to recognize if you should seek treatment. Surviving a fire can be an extremely stressful and trying event. You are probably very worried about the state of your home and what possessions have been damaged—sorting through the remnants can be frustrating, and your top priority. However, one of the things you should be focused on is your health. While you may not have any burns, you can have lots of harmful inner damage from smoke inhalation, which can be very deadly.

The Breath of Death Believe it or not, smoke inhalation is the number one cause of death when a fire occurs—not the fire itself. It can happen through breathing in the products of combustion during a fire, which results from the breakdown of substances by the heat. The smoke that you are breathing in is the mixture of hot particles and gas. This is extremely dangerous, as it damages your body by robbing it of needed oxygen. Chemical irritation and asphyxiation can occur as well, resulting in illness and death. Smoke can make it impossible for your body to get enough oxygen. The combustion that occurs can create chemicals, which can seriously damage your skin, and your mucous membranes. This is irritating and harmful to your respiratory tract, which can cause your airway to swell, collapse, and put you in medical distress. One example of this was in St. Louis. A small house fire that was fairly brief, turned into a chemical nightmare when the flames sent cleaning supplies into the air. Residents of the home started getting symptoms in their respiratory tract. That fire damaged St. Louis home became a medical disaster for its residents. Some of the chemical irritants that occur include sulfur dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen chloride, and


chlorine. The last thing you want is to breathe these harmful substances into the delicate tissues of your body. When these chemicals choke out the oxygen in your body, they rob your systems of what they need to operate, and your cells will begin to die. Carbon monoxide poisoning has been found to be the leading cause of death when you breathe in smoke during a fire.

Recognizing the Problem Since it is not as simple as recognizing a burn on your skin, you will need to be particularly vigilant about recognizing symptoms of a problem. There are several signs which can indicate a problem. Symptoms may include a cough, shortness of breath, hoarseness, a headache, and acute mental status changes. You may become confused and dazed. Signs such as soot in the airway passages or changes in skin color may be useful in determining the degree of injury. Make sure that if you notice any of these symptoms, you seek medical care right away. Coughing occurs when the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract get irritated, causing it to secrete more mucus. This creates brochospasms—the mucus you cough may be either clear or black, depending on how burned the particles are that you have inhaled. You may also experience a shortness of breath, which can be related in injury of your respiratory tract, or a decrease of oxygen in your blood. You may feel the need to breathe more deeply or more quickly than usual—if this is the case, see your doctor right away. Your eyes may be red and irritated by the smoke, and there may be burns on the corneas in the eyes. You do not want to have permanent eye damage, so seeing an optometrist can help greatly. You may experience terrible headaches, due to your inhalation of carbon monoxide. You may find that you are nauseous, and you may begin to vomit—this can mean that you have experienced carbon monoxide poisoning. This can be very dangerous for your health, and can cause brain damage and death. Your symptoms and the condition can worsen over time, so the quicker you seek help from a medical professional, the better.

Watch Those You Love Pay attention to if you or loved ones have confusion, fainting, seizures, or any other changes to your mental status. This can be the serious sign of a problem, including brain damage. It is probably a good idea to seek treatment from an emergency room after you have been around a fire damage, just in case. It is much better to be safe than sorry, when it comes to smoke inhalation.


While you may be caught up in restoring your home, and repairing the damage that fire can create, think about your health and the health of your loved ones as well. The quicker you catch a problem, the less serious its short and long-term effects will be. Photo Credit: Jess and Colin, Slworking2

Understanding and Treating the Effects of Smoke Inhalation  

If you have survived a fire, you may be worried about your home and your possessions, when you should be worried about your health. This art...