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Lung problems and volcano smog

Volcanic smog (vog) is created when sulfur dioxide and other gases released from a volcano react with oxygen, moisture, dust, and sunlight in the atmosphere.

Volcanic smog can irritate the lungs and worsen existing lung problems.

Alternative Names



Volcanoes release plumes of ash, dust, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful gases into the air. These chemicals (the most harmful of which is sulfur dioxide) react with oxygen, moisture, and sunlight in the atmosphere to form a type of air pollution called volcanic smog (vog).

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

When people breathe in vog, it irritates the lungs and mucus membranes, and it can affect lung function. Volcanic smog is also thought to interfere with the normal functioning of the immune system.

The acidic particles in vog can worsen the following lung conditions:

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

Symptoms of volcanic smog exposure include:

  • Breathing difficulties, shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Eye watering and irritation
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Increased mucus production
  • Lack of energy
  • Sore throat


If you have breathing problems, take the following measures to prevent the respiratory effects of 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. It can also help to use an air cleaner/purifier.
  • When you do have to go outside, wear a paper or gauze surgical mask that covers your nose and mouth. Wetting the mask with a solution made from baking soda and water can further protect your lungs.
  • Take your COPD or asthma medications as prescribed.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can further irritate your lungs.
  • Drink a lot of fluids, especially warm fluids (such as tea).
  • Try bending forward at the waist slightly to make it easier for you to breathe.
  • Practice breathing exercises to keep your lungs as healthy as possible. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth while your lips are almost closed (pursed-lip breathing). Or, breathe deeply, expanding your belly without moving your chest (diaphragmatic breathing).


If your asthma or COPD symptoms suddenly get worse, try using your rescue inhaler. If your symptoms don't improve, call 911 or the emergency number immediately, or 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
  • Are running a high fever (over 100° Fahrenheit)
  • 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, hzards, and mitigations. In: Auerbach PS. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa:Mosby Elsevier;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.

Updated: 5/30/2012

Doug C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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