The health risk of fire-breathing (it’s not getting burned!)

Professionals who have been trained in the art of fire-breathing ever fail to amaze onlookers be it at a circus, in a street show, or…
The health risk of fire-breathing (it’s not getting burned!)

Fire-breathing could have unexpected consequences. (Shutterstock)

Professionals who have been trained in the art of fire-breathing ever fail to amaze onlookers be it at a circus, in a street show, or at a private event. But aside from the risk of being burned, there is another danger to taking up this hobby, one that a European man was unfortunate enough to demonstrate according to medical journal reports.

A 25-year-old man was hospitalized after he accidentally inhaled and swallowed the chemical used for fire-breathing, paraffin. The incident occurred when the performer–who did have prior experience–put the paraffin oil in his mouth but accidentally inhaled/swallowed it. A few days later he began to suffer severe breathing issues and intense pain.

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Doctors diagnosed the man with acute aspiration pneumonia, less formally known as “fire-breathing” pneumonia, and released him from the hospital 4 weeks later fully recovered.

“Our patient, due to the urgent diagnosis and proper treatment, did not suffer from chronic complications,” said study author Dr. Andon Chibishev to Live Science.

Pnemonia and paraffin ingestion

Authors who reviewed the fire-breather’s case indicate that, despite how easy it is to do, accidental inhalation of paraffin is generally unheard of. Thankfully, in small quantities, paraffin is considered non-toxic if accidentally ingested, according to the National Library of Medicine. The true danger for fire-breathers lies in the contraction of pneumonia.

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that is typically the result of bacteria, viruses or fungi, but occasionally accidental inhalation of fluid will also trigger the pneumonia response in what is called aspiration pneumonia. The condition can often be accompanied by fever, chills, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and coughing, among others.

“Aspiration can cause lung inflammation (chemical pneumonitis), infection (bacterial pneumonia or abscess), or airway obstruction. However, most episodes of aspiration cause minor symptoms or pneumonitis rather than infection or obstruction…” states The Merck Manual. “Multiple substances are directly toxic to the lungs or stimulate an inflammatory response when aspirated; gastric acid is the most common such aspirated substance, but others include petroleum products (particularly of low viscosity, such as petroleum jelly) and laxative oils (such as mineral, castor, and paraffin oil), all of which cause lipoid pneumonia. Aspirated gasoline and kerosene also cause a chemical pneumonitis.”

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Though paraffin is considered non-toxic when ingested, it still caused a pneumonia response in the patient known as lipoid pneumonia. This form of pneumonia is simply the classification given to pneumonia that results from lipids (like paraffin oil) entering the bronchial tree of the lungs. Recovery generally requires hospitalization and proactive treatment with antibiotics.

While the fire-breathing incident happened in 2010, but medical reports on the case have just been released. Experts indicate the patient is still doing well. As expected, he no longer practices fire-breathing.