In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

June 24, 2014

Unfortunate fire starters

By In the Loop

Mannequin with facial hair prepared for testing.When mustache hair meets a home oxygen tank, sometimes sparks will fly. These are the surprising findings of a Mayo Clinic study that evaluated the relationship between facial hair and burns resulting from oxygen therapy. Andrew Greenlund, M.D., Ph.D., had noticed an unusual number of fire-related accidents in patients with facial hair who were on home oxygen therapy. Yes, facial hair was not just catching on. It was catching on fire. So he decided to investigate.

A review of Mayo medical charts found that nine men had oxygen-therapy-related burns between 1994 and 2013, and of these, eight of the men had facial hair. Not one to jump to conclusions, Dr. Greenlund joined forces with his wife and fellow physician Laura Greenlund, M.D., and Mayo medical resident Bradley Anderson, M.D., to conduct an experiment. In the Greenlunds’ garage. Using mannequins. The trio set up a mannequin with a mustache fashioned from human hair and another mannequin without. To simulate the home-oxygen-therapy experience, they drilled nostrils int the mannequins and inserted nasal tubes, which they connected to a home oxygen tank. Once the oxygen was flowing as it would in home therapy (2 liters per minute), they started the fun stuff -- exposing the mannequins to sparks. 

You may have guessed the outcome already. The mannequin with facial hair caught on fire while the clean-shaven one did not. “It can be what you might think are innocuous or benign things,” Dr. Greenlund says of how the facial fires might start. He says he's seen oxygen therapy patients whose nasal oxygen tubes ignited while they were doing things such as grinding a lawn mower blade, smoking or even just being near someone lighting a match. But one thing was clear, “with the facial hair and oxygen, it can be a real risk.” Or, as Mayo's official news release puts it: "Mustaches and other facial hair can act as kindling for nasal oxygen tubes when a spark joins the mix."

If you’re on home oxygen therapy, and facial fireworks are not your idea of a good time, the doctors at Mayo Clinic have simple suggestions to protect yourself:

  • Shave your facial hair.
  • Use water-based hair gels instead of hair products that contain alcohol or oil.
  • Use humidified oxygen.
  • And, last but not least, avoid sparks and flames.

Proceed with due caution and share your comments. While you are here, share this story through the handy social media tools.

Tags: Dr. Andrew Greenlund, Dr. Bradley Anderson, Dr. Laura Greenlund, Research News

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