Lungs on Fire: Preventing and Detecting Chemical Pneumonia

You probably never heard of chemical pneumonia. But, it’s a very real problem. And, you need to know how to deal with it before it becomes a problem for you. Here’s what experts want you to know.

Fact Sheet

Chemical pneumonia is a type of pneumonia triggered by an unusual type of lung irritation. It’s usually caused by bacteria or a virus. But, chemical pneumonia is caused by inflammation of lung tissue from toxins or poisons. Only a small percentage of pneumonias are caused by this.

Many chemicals can cause it, however, including liquids, gases, and small particles like dust and fumes from burned materials. Some chemicals only harm the lungs while others cause   serious organ damage. Sometimes, it can result in death.

Aspiration pneumonia is another kind of chemical pneumonia. It means you’re breathing oral secretions and stomach contents into your lungs. It’s the inflammation from this, enzymes and stomach acid, which causes the pneumonia. Bacteria from the stomach or mouth may also cause bacterial pneumonia on top of this chemical trigger.

The Symptoms

While the symptoms mimic bacterial or viral pneumonia, you need to be aware of how they affect your body. Look out for things like:

  • Type and strength of chemical
  • Prior medical condition
  • Age of the person
  • Length of exposure: seconds, minutes, hours
  • Exposure environment: indoor, outdoor, heat, cold
  • Form of chemical: gas, vapor, particulate, liquid
  • Protective measures used to avoid exposure to chemicals

Common symptoms include:

  • Burning of the nose, eyes, lips, mouth, and throat
  • Dry cough
  • Wet cough producing clear, yellow, or green mucus
  • Cough producing blood or frothy pink matter in saliva
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Painful breathing or pleuritis (an inflammation of the outside covering of the lungs)
  • Headache
  • Flu symptoms
  • Weakness or a general ill feeling
  • Delirium or disorientation

Your doctor might also observe you for a period of time. He or she may look for common signs like:

  • Chemical odors on other areas of the body
  • Frothy spit from a cough
  • Fever Continue Reading
  • Heavy sweating
  • Rapid or shallow breaths
  • Rapid pulse
  • Oral, nasal, or skin burns
  • Pale or cyanotic skin and lips
  • Swelling of eyes or tongue
  • Hoarse or muffled voice
  • Altered thinking and reasoning skills
  • Unconsciousness

Many different types of gases like chlorine, phosgene, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen dioxide, and ammonia can be released into the air in industrial accidents. It may not be immediately apparent either until you start breathing the toxic fumes. These chemicals severely irritate the lungs and may cause damage.

Gases such as chlorine and ammonia dissolve easily and irritate the nose, mouth, and throat area. They also affect the lungs when inhaled deeply. A common household exposure occurs when you mix ammonia with other cleansers containing bleach — creating ammonium chloride.

Some gases, like nitrogen dioxide, don’t dissolve easily. They don’t produce early warning signs. Instead, they go on to cause inflammation of the small airways when inhaled. These gases then lead to accumulation of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema), and you can drown if left untreated.

Silo filler’s disease occurs when inhaling fumes containing nitrogen dioxide. It’s common among farmers working in the field and in moist silage, like fresh corn and grains. Fluids might develop in the lungs after 12 hours of exposure. The condition is temporary, but may recur 10 to 14 days later.


Soluble gases, like chlorine and ammonia cause severe burning in the eyes, nose, throat, windpipe, and large airways within minutes of being exposed. Retching and shortness of breath are common. Less soluble gases like nitrogen dioxide and ozone cause shortness of breath, and may be severe. After 3 to 4 hours, and sometimes up to 12 hours, after exposure, you may notice these effects.

With less soluble gases, long-term damage is more of a risk, and it can cause chronic wheezing and shortness of breath.

Diagnosing The Problem

A chest x-ray can show whether there’s a problem, and whether it’s edema or bronchiolitis. Computer tomography is helpful when you have symptoms but your chest x-ray doesn’t look abnormal. A sensor is attached to your finger to figure out the amount of oxygen in your blood. Tests of lung function are also typically done to determine how much of the air the lungs can hold and the rate carbon dioxide and oxygen are exchanged.


Most people recover completely from accidental exposure to gases.

The most serious cases are infection and severe lung damage, scarring the small airways in the lungs. Some studies show the long-term impairment of lungs many years after exposure to gases.

What To Do Next

According to Brown and Crouppen Law Firm, it’s not always easy to prove negligence in business. So, if you suspect you were injured at work, you should always try to determine the source of the chemical exposure. Make sure you’re not delaying filling out an accident form.

Tell your supervisor immediately about exposure, and get medical attention. Call your health insurance company about filing a claim, and then contact an attorney to determine what your rights are. You may or may not have a case against the business.

Amelie Curtis works in a law office, mostly dealing with paperwork and phone calls. In her spare time she enjoys walking her dogs, writing articles and knitting.