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Lung problems and volcano smog


Volcanic smog is also called vog. It forms when a volcano erupts and releases gases into the atmosphere.

Volcanic smog can irritate the lungs and make existing lung problems worse.

Alternative Names



Volcanoes release plumes of ash, dust, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful gases into the air. Sulfur dioxide is the most harmful of these gases. When these gases react with oxygen, moisture, and sunlight in the atmosphere, volcanic smog forms. This smog is a type of air pollution.

Volcanic smog also contains highly acidic aerosols (tiny particles and droplets), mainly sulfuric acid and other sulfur-related compounds. These aerosols are small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs.

When people breathe in volcanic smog, it irritates the lungs and mucus membranes. It can affect how well your lungs work. Volcanic smog may also affect your immune system.

The acidic particles in volcanic smog can worsen these lung conditions:

  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Emphysema
  • Any other long-term (chronic) lung condition

Children and people with blood circulation problems are also more likely to feel the effects of volcanic smog.

Symptoms of volcanic smog exposure include:

  • Breathing problems, shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Lack of energy
  • More mucus production
  • Sore throat
  • Watery, irritated eyes


If you already have breathing problems, taking these steps can prevent your breathing from getting worse when you are exposed to volcanic smog:

  • Stay indoors as much as possible. People who have lung conditions should limit physical activity outdoors. Keep windows and doors closed and the air conditioning on. Using an air cleaner/purifier can also help.
  • When you do have to go outside, wear a paper or gauze surgical mask that covers your nose and mouth. Wet the mask with a solution of baking soda and water to further protect your lungs.
  • Take your COPD or asthma medications as prescribed.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can irritate your lungs even more.
  • Drink a lot of fluids, especially warm fluids (such as tea).
  • Bend forward at the waist slightly to make it easier to breathe.
  • Practice breathing exercises indoors to keep your lungs as healthy as possible. With your lips almost closed, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. This is called pursed-lip breathing. Or, breathe deeply through your nose into your belly without moving your chest. This is called diaphragmatic breathing.
  • If possible, leave the area affected by volcanic smog.


If you have asthma or COPD and your symptoms suddenly get worse, try using your rescue inhaler. If your symptoms don't improve:

  • Call 911 or another emergency number right away.
  • Have someone take you to the emergency room.

Call your health care provider if you:

  • Are coughing up more mucus than usual, or the mucus is changing color
  • Are coughing up blood
  • Have a high fever (over 100°F or 37.8°C)
  • Have flu-like symptoms
  • Have severe chest pain or tightness
  • Have shortness of breath or wheezing that is getting worse
  • Have swelling in your legs or abdomen


Feldman JN, Tilling RI. Volcanic eruptions, hazards, and mitigations. In: Auerbach PS. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2011:chap 15.

Naumova EN. Emergency room visits for respiratory conditions in children increased after Guagua Pichincha volcanic eruptions in April 2000 in Quito, Ecuador observational study: time series analysis. Environ Health. 2007;6:21.

Volcanic Air Pollution -- A Hazard in Hawai'i. U.S. Geological Survey. Last updated October 2004. U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 169-197. Accessed April 22, 2012.

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