a female firefighter holds an axe and a mask

How Are Firefighters Affected By Smoke?

Last updated: August 2022

One of my friends is a retired firefighter, and her lungs are being really cranky (yes, HER lungs--not his lungs). It made me wonder- what has her job done to her lungs all these years? Running into a burning building can't be the best thing for anyone's lungs, right? Was she inhaling irritants on her job? I'm talking about chemicals or tiny particles that irritate our lungs, not irritating people! We all have those on the job. Haha!

Irritants are tiny particles that can trigger an asthma attack. Examples of this are air pollution, tobacco and fire smoke, perfumes, scented candles, and cleaning products.1

Allergens are things people are allergic to that can also trigger an asthma attack. Things like cats and dogs, trees, flowers, grass, pollen, etc.1

Fighting house fires

Even though firefighters wear all of their heavy gear when they enter a home (including an oxygen tank and a mask), does that protect their lungs from breathing in hazardous chemicals? And if they have asthma, does being a firefighter make their asthma worse? The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) says:2

"Monitoring data indicates that firefighters can be exposed to a whole host of respiratory toxicants including hydrogen chloride, phosgene, sulfur dioxide, aldehydes and particulates. Smoke-induced airway hyper-responsiveness can exacerbate the symptoms of wheezing in firefighters with asthma."

Asthma and firefighters

What if your family member is a fighter? Or what if you're a firefighter? Take any breathing problems seriously! Really--nag them to take care of themselves! My friends that are firefighters, police, and paramedics seem to have the "walk it off" attitude. You have probably seen it. Someone will punch their coworker in the arm and say, "You're fine, quit whining. Just walk it off!"

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) wants all firefighters to have a physical and lung function test every year2. They don't want any of them ignoring symptoms until it's too late. No "walking it off!" Did you know that if the swelling in the lungs from asthma is not treated, it can become COPD?

Besides asthma, what about firefighters and COPD?

Normally, asthma symptoms come and go, and can be reversed with a good treatment plan and with a little time. But if asthma is not treated, it can cause permanent scarring in the lungs, which makes the airways thicker. This can lead to COPD and a really tough time breathing.3

COPD is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If you have that, your symptoms are chronic and persistent. Sigh. Unlike asthma, you can't reverse the damage to your lungs. That scarring is there for good which means less air can get through your airways. And you are going to have a miserable time breathing (and maybe stuck hauling around an oxygen tank).4

Other ways to protect yourself if you are a firefighter is to use a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and make sure it fits properly.2 If you smoke (or vape) - staaahhhp! Inhaling all of those irritants while fighting fires can mean double trouble for your lungs.

Fighting wildfires

Is that any safer because firefighters are outside? Well, nope. Wildland firefighters can face heat-related injuries, smoke inhalation can be trapped by fire, and have their share of mishaps like slip and falls. With the intense physical activity of fighting fires, they also risk sudden cardiac deaths.5 Yikes!

So to all my firefighter friends, you are my heroes! Thank you for protecting everyone, while risking your safety and health.

Please take care of yourself!

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