Smoke Inhalation and Respiratory Failure

Contact our law firm about a lawsuit for smoke inhalation injuries from an apartment or house fire. Attorney Fred Pritzker and his team of lawyers help fire and explosion victims and their families hold landlords, gas companies, propane dealers and others accountable for brain damage, respiratory failure and wrongful death.

There is an excellent article on this topic on the National Institutes of Health website entitled, “Smoke Inhalation Injury: An Update” written by Robert H. Demling, M.D. Because we are lawyers, not doctors, we recommend you read it.  The citation is below.

Fire survivors may have exterior thermal burns and/or smoke inhalation injuries. Both are potentially fatal, but most fire deaths are caused by the smoke, not the flames.

When smoke is breathed in, the particulate matter and chemicals in the smoke can quickly cause respiratory failure and oxygen deprivation, which causes brain damage, cardiac dysfunction and often death.

In one of our cases, a young girl survived an apartment fire. Her mother and brother tragically died, and she was permanently disabled, her cognitive abilities drastically diminished.

Fred Pritzker and Eric Hageman

Attorneys Fred Pritzker and Eric Hageman recently won $10 million for a client injured in an explosion and resulting fire. Fred and Eric can be contacted at 1-888-377-8900 (toll free) about a lawsuit for compensation and justice.

A U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research study1 from 1985 and 1990 found that mortality for people with both burns and inhalation damage is six times higher (29.5%). A recent study2 also found evidence of long-term lung impairment, even for people with limited smoke exposure.

Chemicals in the smoke can also cause serious injury and death by poisoning the body:

In addition to carbon monoxide and cyanide other possible chemicals in smoke include:

  • aldehydes
  • acid gases
  • sulfur dioxide
  • nitrogen oxides
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • benzene
  • toluene
  • styrene.

The type if chemicals in smoke varies depending on what is burning, how much oxygen is available, and the burn temperature. The extent of the chemical Inhalation Injuries depends on a person’s exposure.

Signs and Symptoms of Smoke Inhalation

  • Burns or reddening of facial skin
  • Frostbite (from skin contact with compressed gas)
  • Eye damage, vision problems
  • Coughing
  • Hoarseness when speaking
  • Tachypnea (rapid, shallow breathing)
  • Dyspnea (labored breathing)
  • Stridor (high-pitched breathing sound caused by disrupted airflow)
  • Rales (a rattling sound heard with a stethoscope when listening to lungs)
  • Rhonchi (continuous, low-pitched rattling sound similar to snoring)
  • Retractions (skin over ribs or neck is sucked in during inhale of breath, a sign of respiratory distress)
  • Oropharynx (middle throat) damage
  • Upper airway mucosal lesions
  • Soot deposits in nose and mouth
  • Carbonaceous sputum (burned saliva)
  • Loss of consciousness

Effects of Smoke Inhalation

  • Atelectasis: A partial or full collapse of a lung;
  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome: A life-threatening condition caused by fluid buildup in the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs, characterized by severe shortness of breath;
  • Bronchiole (airway) obstruction: This can occur weeks after smoke inhalation causing fatigue, fever, chills, cough, muscle weakness, progressive shortness of breath, bluish color of the skin, lung hemorrhage and respiratory failure;
  • Cancer: Mesothelioma and other cancers are more common among firefighters, according to a recent study;*
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning: Characterized by flu-like symptoms including headaches, nausea and fatigue, this condition can cause brain damage and death;
  • Cyanide poisoning: Characterized by weakness, confusion, dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue and unusual behavior, this condition can cause heart attack, seizure, stroke, coma and death;
  • Hypoxia: Insufficient amount of oxygen reaching the tissues;
  • Infection of facial burns;
  • Inhalation burns: Burns to the throat, windpipe and lungs can limit breathing function;
  • Nitrogen oxide poisoning: Inhalation of nitrogen oxides can impair lung function, cause pulmonary edema (difficulty breathing due to excess fluid in the lungs), cyanosis (inadequate oxygenation of the blood), pneumonitis (inflammation of the alveoli walls in the lungs), bronchitis, bronchiolitis, emphysema, and methemoglobinemia (a life-threatening condition that prevents blood from releasing oxygen into body tissue);
  • PneumoniaReactive Airway Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS):  A type of asthma triggered by inhalation of chemicals or irritants;
  • Respiratory failure.

Free Consultation

To contact an attorney at Pritzker Hageman, P.A., please call 1-888-377-8900 (toll free) or submit our free case consultation form. Attorney Fred Pritzker is in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America.

  1. Demling, Robert H. “Smoke inhalation lung injury: an update.” Eplasty 8 (2008), accessed on NIH website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2396464/.
  2. Carrougher, Gretchern J. (1998).  Burn Care and Therapy.  St. Louis:  Mosby Inc.
  3. Fogarty, P W et al. “Long Term Effects of Smoke Inhalation in Survivors of the King’s Cross Underground Station Fire.” Thorax 46.12 (1991): 914–918. Print.