NEW YORK — A new case report from doctors suggests that men who use home oxygen therapy should consider a clean-shaven look to reduce their risk of serious facial burns.
“If you’ve ever tried to start a campfire, you always start with some dry little twigs and once that starts — and that’s kind of the mustache — then that oxygen tubing lights on fire, it’s like a blowtorch shooting up their nose,” said Dr. Andrew Greenlund of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “So, if we can prevent it, it would be good.”
People with lung conditions that impair their ability to get enough oxygen from normal air may use home oxygen therapy, which delivers a steady stream of oxygen-rich air from a portable metal tank through tubing that fits into the nostrils.
After noticing that three of his patients, all with mustaches, had suffered facial burns while using their home oxygen therapy, Greenlund and his team decided to investigate.
“We looked through all the literature out there in the last 20 years and no one had noted that more people with facial hair and home oxygen were having burns than people without facial hair,” he told Reuters Health.
Narrowing their search to their own institution, the doctors identified nine patients who had suffered home oxygen therapy-related burns and eight of those men had mustaches.
Greenlund said that NASA has demonstrated how flammable human hair is under normal conditions and how it ignites much more readily in the presence of higher oxygen concentrations. But no one had looked at the issue in the context of home oxygen therapy.
To test their theory that facial hair places oxygen therapy users at a higher risk for burns, the researchers set up mannequins with and without human hair mustaches, outfitted them with the nasal tubing and exposed them to a spark.
The tubing on the mustached models ignited while those without mustaches did not, suggesting that concentrated oxygen together with kindling in the form of facial hair is a dangerously flammable combination.
According to the report published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 1.5 million people in the United States use home-oxygen therapy, and worldwide the numbers are growing as smoking rates increase, leading to lung disease.
“Since you can modify that risk by getting rid of the facial hair it seemed like a reasonable thing to look into to decrease the risk of the burns,” Greenlund said.
The American Thoracic Society advises persons using home oxygen therapy to keep the tubing as well as the oxygen tank at least six feet away from an open flame, and to never smoke while using the device.
The poly-vinyl tubing that patients use is extremely flammable, said Greenlund, so avoiding sparks is key. He noted that most of the patients who suffered burns were grinding metal at the time, which could have been a source of sparks.
“The best thing to do if your tubing catches on fire is to get it off quickly,” he added.
He thinks that another solution might be to change the material that the tubing is made of so that it doesn’t burn as easily.
If culture and religion allow, then shaving facial hair would be the number one preventive measure to take, Greenlund advises. But if a man decides to keep his facial hair, then using water-based hair products and avoiding those that are alcohol- or oil-based could also help reduce the risk.
He pointed out that while the degree of the burns varies, they can be very serious and a few of the individuals who suffered facial burns had to be put on a ventilator as their burns healed.
“One of my patients said it was like looking hell in the face, so it can be pretty traumatic and it’s life-threatening,” he said.