Smoke Inhalation Injuries

Smoke inhalation is the leading cause of death in victims of indoor, structural fires. The concept of a smoke inhalation injury refers to an injury that is due to inhalation or exposure to hot gaseous products of combustion, like smoke. This type of injury frequently results in serious respiratory complications.

It has been estimated by a number of studies that between 50 and 80 percent of all fire deaths are the result of smoke inhalation injuries and not burns. Burns are what people commonly think of when they think of deaths from a fire but it’s really not true. The smoke itself injures or kills through a combination of thermal damage, poisoning, and pulmonary irritation. These three items are caused by carbon monoxide, cyanide, and other products from combustion in a fire.

Smoke Inhalation Symptoms

The symptoms of smoke inhalation vary significantly, but can include:

  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Burns to the nose, mouth and face
  • Singed nostril hairs
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Burned saliva

Nearly one third of all patients admitted to burn units have some degree of pulmonary injury due to the inhalation of smoke.

Any person that exhibits any signs of smoke inhalation should be evaluated by a medical professional like a firefighter-paramedic or physician immediately. It may be necessary to use advanced medical care to save the life of the patient. This includes mechanical ventilation, even if the person is conscious and alert. If advanced intervention is not available, the patient should be brought out into fresh air and given medical oxygen if it is available.

Main complications from smoke inhalation

  1. Impaired or reduced levels of oxygen at the tissue level
  2. Thermal injury to the upper parts of the airway
  3. Chemical injury