Smoke Inhalation

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If you wind up spending a lot of time in the woods, you may eventually come up against a wildfire. Also, once electricity is down and you have to cook food with wood fires or propane stoves, there will be a higher chance of a fire in your retreat. Other than burns, you can become seriously ill or even die from simple smoke inhalation.

Causes of Smoke Inhalation

Common causes of smoke inhalation include:

Simple Combustion: Combustion uses up oxygen near a fire and can kill a person simply from oxygen deficit. The larger the fire, the more oxygen it removes from the area. This is particularly troublesome in a building fire.

Carbon Dioxide: Some by-products of smoke may not directly kill a person, but could take up the space in the lungs that Oxygen would ordinarily use. Even the expulsion of a large bubble of Carbon Dioxide can kill wildlife near it, such as in the example of “swamp gas”.

Chemical irritants: Many chemicals founds in smoke can cause irritation injury when they come in contact with the lung membrane. This amounts to a burn inside the lung tissue, which causes swelling and airway obstruction. Chlorine gas used in World War I is an example of a deadly chemical irritant.

Other asphyxiants: Carbon Monoxide, Cyanide, and some Sulfides may interfere with the body ability to utilize oxygen. Carbon monoxide is the most common of these.

Smoke Inhalation Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

• · Cough
• · Shortness of breath
• · Hoarseness
• · Upper airway spasm
• · Eye irritation
• · Headaches
• · Pale, bluish or even bright red skin
• · Loss of consciousness leading to coma or death

Your evaluation of the patient with smoke inhalation may show soot in the throat and nasal passages. Both of these areas may be swollen and irritated.

Of course, you will want to get your patient out of the smoky area and into an environment where there is clean air. This may not be as easy as it seems. You must be very careful not to put yourself in a situation where you are likely to succumb to smoke inhalation yourself. You should consider a surgical mask or even a gas mask before entering a conflagration to rescue a victim. Be prepared to use CPR if necessary.It is important to have some way to deliver oxygen to your patient if needed. There are many portable commercially-available canisters which would be useful to get oxygen quickly into the lungs. Consider these for your medical storage.

Don’t expect a rapid recovery from significant smoke inhalation. Your patient will be short of breath with the slightest activity and will be very hoarse. These symptoms may go away with time, or may be permanent disabilities. Prevention by planning escape routes and having regular drills will allow your people to get out of dangerous situations quickly. Burns are also a danger of exposure to fire. Read about burn treatment in a collapse situation. Know what to do before things happen.

Joe Alton, MD, aka Dr. Bones

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Find out more about smoke inhalation and 200 other topics in the award-winning 4th edition of The Survival Medicine Handbook, available in black and white, color, and color spiral-bound at!

Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

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