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Smoke Inhalation

What is smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation is when you breathe in harmful smoke from burning materials and gases. This harmful smoke 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, coal, plastic, or electrical wiring. Smoke inhalation may also happen if you are near a burning forest.

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:

  • Cough and hoarseness

  • Chest pain or coughing up blood

  • Trouble breathing, such as shortness of breath and noisy breathing

  • 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 any of the following:

  • Blood gases: This is also called an arterial blood gas, or ABG. Blood is taken from an artery (blood vessel) in your wrist, arm, or groin. Your blood is tested for the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in it. The results can tell caregivers how well your lungs are working.

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.

  • Bronchoscopy: This is a procedure to look inside your airway and learn the cause of your airway or lung condition. A bronchoscope (thin tube with a light) is inserted into your mouth and moved down your throat to your airway. You may be given medicine to numb your throat and help you relax during the procedure. Tissue and fluid may be collected from your airway or lungs to be tested.

  • Chest x-ray: Caregivers may use x-rays to look for lung damage and signs of infection, such as pneumonia.

  • Pulmonary function tests: Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) help caregivers learn how well your body uses oxygen. You breathe into a mouthpiece connected to a machine. The machine measures how much air you breathe in and out over a certain amount of time. PFTs help your caregivers decide the best treatment for you.

  • V/Q scan: This is a ventilation (V) and perfusion (Q) test. This test is also called a VP scan. A V/Q scan is a two-part test in which pictures of your lungs are taken to look for certain lung problems. During the perfusion part of the test, radioactive dye is put into your vein. Your blood carries the dye to the blood vessels in your lungs. Pictures are taken to see how blood flows in your lungs. During the ventilation part of the test, you breathe in a special gas. Pictures are taken to see how well your lungs take in oxygen.

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 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: These medicines are safe for most people to use. However, they can cause serious problems when used by people with certain medical conditions. Tell caregivers if you have liver or kidney disease or a history of bleeding in your stomach.

What are the risks of smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation is a serious injury, and treatment is needed as soon as possible. If it is not treated early, the smoke may damage your lungs and cause breathing problems. Your lungs may become infected, swollen, and filled with fluid. Fluid in the lungs causes severe shortness of breath and may lead to respiratory failure. This may affect your heart and brain, and it may be life-threatening. Even with treatment, you may have permanent lung damage.

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.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You cough up or vomit blood.

  • You have a fast heartbeat and chest pain.

  • You have increased shortness of breath.

  • You have weakness, and pale and clammy skin.

  • You are wheezing.

  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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