Smoke inhalation from an accidental fire can cause difficulty breathing, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other toxic effects that can result in serious injuries or even death. Smoke inhalation occurs when a person breathes in smoke or the products of combustion during a fire. The fire not only uses the surrounding oxygen in the air taking the oxygen that humans need to breathe, but through burning or combustion (the rapid breakdown of a substance by heat) creates smoke which is a mixture of heated particles and gases that are created by burning.
It is impossible to predict the exact composition of smoke produced by a residential fire or industrial fire as every accident fire is different. The products being burned, the temperature of the fire, and the amount of oxygen available to the fire all make a difference in the type of smoke produced. This is especially true when furniture, appliances, and other items made up of plastic or other chemicals is burned. The resulting smoke can be filled with irritants or toxins and result in serious respiratory problems or even death.
Smoke inhalation can damage the body by simple asphyxiation (lack of oxygen), chemical irritation, chemical asphyxiation, or a combination of these. Combustion can use up the oxygen near the fire and lead to death when there is no oxygen for a person to breathe. Smoke itself can also contain products that do not cause direct harm to a person, but they take up the space that is needed for oxygen. Carbon dioxide acts in this way.
Combustion can also result in the formation of chemicals that cause direct injury when they contact the skin and mucous membranes. These substances disrupt the normal lining of the respiratory tract. This disruption can potentially cause swelling, airway collapse, and respiratory distress. Examples of chemical irritants found in smoke include sulfur dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen chloride, and chlorine.
A fire also can produce compounds that do damage by interfering with the body's oxygen use at a cellular level. Carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and hydrogen sulfide are all examples of chemicals produced in fires that interfere with the use of oxygen by the cell during the production of energy. If either the delivery of oxygen or the use of oxygen is inhibited, cells will die.
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