The effects of inhaling smoke from a bonfire

Written by alex saez | 13/05/2017
The effects of inhaling smoke from a bonfire
Bonfires, like any other fire, emit deadly smoke. Minimising exposure to the smoke is important. (Kim Carson/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Bonfires may seem harmless and controlled, but the smoke emanating from them is extremely dangerous. Regardless of the source, smoke can contain a variety of chemicals and compounds that are life-threatening in high enough doses. Before starting a bonfire or any kind of controlled fire, it is important to know the possible complications that can arise from inhaling smoke and its by-products.


Bonfires can contain any number of combustible materials. To better understand the dangers, it is important to know what is being inhaled. The smoke is composed of three things: simple asphyxiants, chemical asphyxiants and irritant compounds. Simple asphyxiants burn away oxygen, which leaves toxic carbon dioxide behind. Chemical asphyxiants are substances that interfere with the body's ability to carry and distribute oxygen, which include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulphide. Irritant compounds include things like ammonia and sulphur dioxide. These cause damage to mucous membranes. As a result, airways can swell and collapse, making breathing very difficult.


Inhaling smoke from any source can result in shortness of breath. Respiratory damage makes it difficult for cells to carry oxygen, and the person must breathe more to compensate. The victim's breathing may also become hoarse. This occurs when fluids collect in the lungs and block the upper airways. If an individual is downwind from a bonfire, the smoke can also cause red, irritated eyes. This can lead to burnt corneas. Soot from the smoke can also build up in the throat and nose, causing blockage. Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas emitted by fires. What makes this substance particularly dangerous is that it is invisible and odourless, unlike smoke. A person may not feel the effects of smoke inhalation and still suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning. Warning signs include headache, nausea and vomiting.

When To Seek Help

If a person seems to be fine after inhaling smoke, keeping an eye on him at home can be enough. However, it is critical to get medical attention if there are outward symptoms like hoarse voice, difficulty breathing, coughing spells or confusion. Some effects may seem minor, but the victim can worsen very quickly. Additionally, do not transport the person in a private vehicle. Ambulances contain life-saving equipment that may be needed.

First Aid and Treatment

The most important thing is to remove the person from the source of the smoke into fresh air. If the victim is unconscious, call 9-1-1 and begin performing CPR until help arrives. Medical treatment will vary depending on the nature of the damage. Antibiotics might be used to treat or prevent infection. Doctors could administer antidotes to counter any toxic effects. Medications will be given to treat pain, swelling and fever if necessary. Steroids are used to reopen the airways. Oxygen will be administered in some cases.

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