Fire eater's lung: retrospective analysis of 123 cases reported to a National Poison Center

Respiration. 2014;87(2):98-104. doi: 10.1159/000350443. Epub 2013 Jun 21.


Background: Fire eater's lung (FEL) is a distinct form of acute chemical toxic pneumonitis, which is caused by aspiration of flammable petrochemical derivatives used by street performers for 'fire eating'. The optimal management of this condition has not yet been determined.

Objective: The aim of this study was to investigate patient characteristics, clinical features, treatment, and outcome of FEL.

Methods: A single-center retrospective review of consecutive cases of FEL in children and adults reported to a national poison center (the Swiss Toxicological Information Center) between 1995 and 2012.

Results: 123 cases (83.7% males, mean age 21.9 years) were included. The most frequently reported symptom was cough (50.4%), followed by chest pain (45.5%), and fever (35.8%). Dyspnea was reported by 23.6%. Cough (p = 0.002) and chest pain (p = 0.02) were significantly more prevalent in subjects reporting to have aspirated the fuel compared to those who have swallowed it or who did not perceive poison exposure. A pulmonary infiltrate was detected in 83% of the cases in whom chest X-ray was performed. Overall, 22% were treated with an antibiotic agent for a mean duration of 10.4 days. Corticosteroids were administered in 4.9%. All showed complete recovery irrespective of the therapeutic management.

Conclusion: The combination of intense pleuritic chest pain, cough, dyspnea, and fever, or any of these symptoms after 'fire eating' or erroneous swallowing of a petroleum distillate should alert the clinician to the diagnosis of FEL. Early antibiotic treatment of severe cases seems justified, considering that clinical, laboratory, and radiologic findings of FEL are overlapping with bacterial superinfection.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Petroleum / adverse effects*
  • Pneumonia / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia / etiology*
  • Pneumonia / therapy
  • Poison Control Centers / statistics & numerical data
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Switzerland / epidemiology
  • Young Adult


  • Petroleum