What is smoke inhalation?

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Smoke inhalation: Overview

Breathing in hot air, smoke, or chemical fumes can cause irritation or swelling in your air passages. Being in or near a fire can cause wheezing and breathing problems. You may not notice these problems until several hours later. Inhaling smoke or other irritants can also poison your body. This is more likely if plastics or synthetic materials were burned.

You probably had a blood test and other tests that measured how your lungs were working. You may have had a blood gas test to measure the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and acid in your blood. Your doctor may have given you oxygen through a mask to help you breathe.

You may have a cough, shortness of breath, and pain while you heal. If you inhaled soot, you may cough up gray or black mucus.

Smoke inhalation

Smoke inhalation occurs when a person breathes in hot air, smoke, or chemical fumes, which can cause burns or swelling in the air passages. Life-threatening carbon monoxide poisoning can occur with smoke inhalation.

The person may be restless, confused, or violent from the smoke and toxic gases inhaled. A changed mental state may be a direct effect of the toxins or may be caused by a lack of oxygen (hypoxia).

Urgent medical attention is needed for someone with symptoms of smoke inhalation. These symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Noisy breathing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Hoarseness, trouble speaking, or inability to speak in full sentences.
  • Coughing.
  • Dark-colored sputum.
  • A change in mental state, such as restlessness, confusion, or sleepiness (lethargy).

How can you care for yourself after smoke inhalation?

  • Get plenty of rest and sleep. You may feel weak and tired for a while, but your energy level will improve with time. Prop up your head on pillows to help you breathe and ease a cough.
  • Suck on cough drops or hard candy to soothe a dry or sore throat. Cough drops do not stop a cough.
  • Take cough medicine if your doctor tells you to.
  • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Avoid things that may irritate your lungs. This might include cold, dry air or hot, humid air.
  • If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • If your doctor prescribed medicine to make breathing easier, such as a bronchodilator or inhaled corticosteroid, use it exactly as directed.
  • If you were given a spirometer to measure how well your lungs are working, use it as instructed. This can help your doctor tell how your recovery is going.

Smoke inhalation in children: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child has severe trouble breathing. Symptoms may include:
    • Using the belly muscles to breathe.
    • The chest sinking in or the nostrils flaring when your child struggles to breathe.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has new or worse trouble breathing.
  • Your child coughs up dark brown or bloody mucus (sputum).
  • Your child's coughing or wheezing gets worse.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.