Napalm Exposure Clinical Presentation

Updated: Mar 02, 2022
  • Author: David Vearrier, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Zygmunt F Dembek, PhD, MS, MPH, LHD  more...
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Exposure history usually is obvious. Patients will recount hearing the sounds of an explosion and seeing flames, and will have excruciatingly painful burns from the exposure.

Napalm produces carbon monoxide as a by-product of combustion. Thus, also evaluate individuals exposed to burning napalm for carbon monoxide exposure. In particular, consider individuals who are found with altered levels of consciousness near burning napalm to have been exposed to toxic levels of carbon monoxide until proven otherwise.


Physical Examination

Immolation, asphyxiation, and burns are the mechanisms by which incendiary weapons kill or wound. Immolation results in a rapid decrease in blood pressure, leading to unconsciousness and death.

Asphyxiation usually occurs as a result of napalm ignition, which causes rapid deoxygenation of surrounding air. This rapid deoxygenation produces an atmosphere of approximately 20% carbon dioxide.

Severe burns (second and/or third degree) of skin exposed to burning napalm are a common finding. Airway injury due to elevated air temperature may result in respiratory embarrassment.

Increased ambient environmental temperature from burning napalm has been known to cause the deaths of individuals in raid shelters as a result of radiant heat and dehydration. This was a frequent cause of death in the bombing raids carried out over Hamburg, Germany, during World War II. The result of this phenomenon frequently was referred to as Bombenbrandschrumpfleichen (incendiary-bomb–shrunken bodies).