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Smoke Inhalation: How to Avoid It and How to Treat It

If There's Smoke, Does There Have to Be Fire?

Obviously, smoke is a by-product of fire, but you don't have to be locked up in an unventilated burning room to be overcome by smoke. Smoke inhalation also can occur from minor fires, such as:

  • Fireplaces with faulty air ducts
  • Stovetop fires
  • The smoldering at the onset of electrical fires
  • Broiler fires
  • Grill fires in improperly ventilated porches and decks
  • Smoldering furniture or mattresses (courtesy of sloppy and dangerous smokers who do not put out their matches or cigarettes)
First Things First

Calling for aid first is an insurance benefit. Just in case you also are overcome with smoke, someone will be on the way to help.

Smoke Signals

The signs of smoke inhalation vary. Minor problems include irritated eyes, coughing jags, and general weakness—which can turn into more serious symptoms if the victim does not get away from the smoke.

To treat smoke inhalation follow these steps:

  1. The first order of business is to get the victim into the fresh air!
  2. Have the victim sit down until he or she begins to feel better.
  3. After coughing has subsided, offer a glass of water to calm a burning throat.
  4. Place a cool washcloth over the victim's eyes and forehead.

Minor incidents do not usually require special medical care. Trust your instincts and your methods of observation. If the person seems fine and does not have a lingering cough, he or she will not need immediate medical attention. But it is always a good idea to call the family physician and have him or her give the “all clear.”

Before You Put the Band-Aid On

Cigarette smoking might not be an immediate first aid problem, but it certainly does a job on your lungs (and other parts of your body). The tar and soot from cigarette smoke is more than the protective cilia can handle. They become paralyzed. The cigarette smoke eventually gets inside the cells and, combined with the mucus manufactured in the alveoli, creates sticky balls that clog passageways and cells. And, oh yes, one more thing: your healthy pink lungs eventually turn black.

Symptoms of serious smoke inhalation requiring first aid include:

  • Continued wheezing and coughing
  • An inability to breathe
  • Choking
  • Lightheadedness
  • Ash, black char, or smoke around the mouth and nose
  • Weakness and lethargy that could lead to unconsciousness

To treat a serious case of smoke inhalation, in which the victim is suffering from the symptoms described above, follow these steps:

  1. Call for help.
  2. Drag the injured person away from the smoke— without injuring yourself.
  3. Check the victim's breathing. If he or she is having difficulty, perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (or CPR, if trained) until help arrives.
  4. Cover the victim with a blanket. If he or she is lying on the cold ground, place a blanket underneath as well.
  5. Loosen clothes around the neck and torso to help breathing.
  6. To prevent possible shock, make sure the victim is lying on his or her back, with a pillow behind the head if she is having difficulty breathing, or a pillow elevating the legs and feet if all seems well.
  7. If the victim is unconscious, turn his or her head to the side to prevent possible vomit from choking him or her.

More on: First Aid


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to First Aid Basics © 1996 by Stephen J. Rosenberg, M.D. and Karla Dougherty. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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