Fear of fire, also called pyrophobia, is a phobia of fire or flames. A phobia is a fear of a situation, object, or activity that is irrational, outsized, uncontrollable, and persistent. It’s normal to be cautious around fire and concerned about fire safety, but for people with pyrophobia, even something like a lit birthday candle can cause overwhelming symptoms of anxiety.
Phobias affect about 19 million Americans and usually first emerge in childhood, although they can start at any age. Fear of fire is a type of phobia known as a specific phobia, an extreme fear that's out of proportion to the actual risk. People with specific phobias know that their fear is excessive, but they can't get past it. About 12% of U.S. adults experience a specific phobia at some point in their lives.
Read on for more information about pyrophobia, including symptoms and how it’s diagnosed and treated.
Phobias are more than everyday anxiety. Phobias negatively impact a person's life and plans and can cause relationship problems. Someone with a fear of fire may avoid going to a birthday party because they are afraid of the fire getting out of control, or they may refuse to live somewhere with a gas stove.
Depending on the specific phobia, symptoms can vary, but they often include:
A mental health professional will use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to diagnose a specific phobia. Pyrophobia is not listed in the DSM-5, but specific phobias are. Criteria include:
- Persistent and excessive fear that occurs in the presence of or in anticipation of a certain situation, event, or object.
- Exposure to the feared trigger usually causes an immediate anxiety response, which can include a panic attack.
- The person knows the fear is out of proportion to the actual threat.
- The phobic situation is avoided. When that's not possible, the person feels extreme distress.
- The phobia significantly impairs the person's normal routine, interfering with work or school and causing relationship problems.
- The fear lasts at least six months.
- Symptoms cannot be explained by any other mental health disorder.
The exact cause of phobias isn't known, but they do tend to run in families. Sometimes phobias arise from a traumatic experience, like a house fire. They can also be a learned behavior—perhaps you grew up in a household where someone else feared fire, for example.
People with specific phobias don't always seek out treatment, especially if they're able to avoid the triggers of their fear. Sometimes, embarrassment keeps them from asking for help. But there are treatments available that can help you manage your phobia so that it doesn't get in the way of your day-to-day life.
The type of therapy that is typically recommended for a specific phobia is exposure therapy. This involves safely and gradually exposing an individual to their feared event or trigger until their distress begins to fade. The person may be taught deep breathing and relaxation techniques to help manage their fear.
Exposure therapy can also be combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a talk therapy that focuses on changing unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
If your fear of fire is causing you intense anxiety or is triggering panic attacks, medication may help. Your healthcare provider may prescribe:
In addition to medication or therapy, relaxation techniques and stress management can help you get your fear of fire under control. While getting treatment, be gentle with yourself, and don't isolate yourself. This is hard work, and being around people you trust can be helpful.
A support group, whether in-person or online, can also be a helpful tool. It can be reassuring to talk to others who know what it's like to live with a phobia, and you can share tips and techniques for managing fear and anxiety.
Pyrophobia, or fear of fire, can affect your quality of life and cause significant distress. But treatments like medication and therapy can help you learn to live with your phobia while easing your anxiety.
A Word From Verywell
A fear of fire can be overwhelming and interfere with your plans and relationships. You might worry that other people won't understand—and embarrassment could even keep you from getting treatment. But remember that many people have phobias, and help is available that will allow you to manage your fear and live a fuller life. Your healthcare provider can put you in touch with a mental health professional to get you started.