Smoke Inhalation

Other than burns, smoke inhalation is the greatest threat posed by fires. Smoke can burn delicate airways and deprive your body of oxygen. It also contains poisonous gases that can badly damage your throat and lungs. Inhaling even a little smoke may affect breathing. Exposure to large amounts can be fatal.

When to go to the emergency room (ER)

Smoke inhalation is a medical emergency. Call 911 and wait for help. Don't attempt to drive yourself or someone else to the hospital. Don't leave a victim alone. Symptoms of smoke inhalation can quickly become worse. They include:

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath

  • Hoarseness or noisy breathing

  • Headache, nausea, or vomiting

  • Confusion, fainting, or seizures

  • Changes in skin color, ranging from blue to "cherry red"

What to expect in the ER

Heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure will be checked, and the affected person will be examined carefully. One or more of these tests may be done:

  • A chest X-ray may help show damage to lungs.

  • Pulse oximetry checks oxygen levels using a light probe attached to the finger.

  • A carboxyhemoglobin test measures blood levels of carbon monoxide, a deadly gas found in smoke.


Treatment focuses on keeping airways open and providing oxygen. Oxygen may be given through a mask or nose tube. Or, an endotracheal tube (breathing tube) may be placed through the nose or mouth into the throat. Severe cases of smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning may be transferred to a hyperbaric oxygen center, in which affected people are given oxygen in a special compression chamber. If the exposure was significant, the affected person is likely to be admitted to the hospital for at least 24 hours.

If you're caught in a building with smoke

  • Drop to your knees and crawl to the nearest exit. Because smoke rises, there is less smoke near the floor.

  • Put your shoulder against a wall to guide you.