Pyromania is an impulse control disorder that gives people an intense urge to deliberately start fires. This may be for pleasure, to relieve tension, or for sexual gratification. Sometimes, people call those with the condition pyromaniacs.

People sometimes use the term “pyromania” to refer to anyone interested in fire, but this is not true pyromania.

Clinical pyromania is rare and is often a symptom of another mental health condition. People with this disorder may show an intense fascination with fires and objects associated with fires, such as lighters and matches.

Read on to learn more about pyromania.

A hand holding a lit match in the dark.Share on Pinterest
Christophe Soulas/Getty Images

Pyromania causes a strong urge to set fires. It is one of several impulse control disorders that make it difficult for people to control certain behaviors. Another example of an impulse control disorder is kleptomania, which causes an urge to steal.

As with kleptomania, pyromania causes a person to engage in behavior that is harmful to themselves and others. People with this disorder may continue to engage in fire-setting despite the negative consequences. In this regard, it can seem similar to an addiction.

Pyromania appears to be a rare disorder. However, it is unclear how many people in the general population may have it. This is because much of the research on its prevalence has focused on those in prison.

Anyone can develop pyromania. However, like many impulse control disorders, pyromania affects more males than females. It is unclear why this is the case.

Experts do know that pyromania often occurs with other mental health conditions. A person with pyromania may have other diagnoses, such as intermittent explosive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Children can also have pyromania. In fact, symptoms of pyromania and other impulse control disorders often appear in childhood or adolescence.

However, it is important to note that many children who set fires are only doing so out of curiosity.

A fascination with fires and fire-setting are hallmarks of pyromania. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) requires a person to have the following symptoms to receive a pyromania diagnosis:

  • intentional, deliberate fire-setting that happens more than once
  • tension or arousal before setting the fire
  • an interest in fire or fire paraphernalia
  • pleasure, gratification, or release of tension after setting a fire or witnessing a fire or its aftermath
  • setting fires for psychological reasons and not as a protest, an attempt to conceal evidence, out of vengeance, because of a hallucination or delusion, or for monetary gain

If impaired judgment can better explain the fire-setting, then a person does not have pyromania. This includes people with cognitive impairments that may make it difficult to understand the risk of fire, as well as individuals under the influence of alcohol or other substances.

In these cases, clinicians should assess whether conduct disorder or another diagnosis could be responsible for the behavior.

Researchers do not have a good understanding of what causes pyromania. There are several reasons that people with the disorder set fires, including:

  • to relieve anxiety or stress
  • for pleasure
  • for sexual gratification, although this is rare

However, the root causes are unclear. Data suggest that several factors may contribute to the development of pyromania and that the interaction of environmental and biological factors may play a role.

Some potential explanations include:

  • Trauma: Impulse control disorders are more common among children who have had traumatic experiences, such as abuse and neglect. Some case reports also describe people developing pyromania following traumatic experiences. For example, a 2022 report discusses new cases of pyromania among adult veterans. It is unclear why this happens, but the authors suggest it may be a way of re-enacting the traumatic event.
  • Family history: Pyromania and other impulse control disorders are more common in people whose relatives have mood disorders. This could be because of a genetic link or due to the effects that mental illness in caregivers can have on the home environment.
  • Other biological factors: Some research suggests that people with impulse control disorders may have differences in brain chemistry and structure.
  • Social and economic factors: Exposure to community violence, low socioeconomic status, and similar socioeconomic stressors correlate with a higher risk of impulse control disorders.
  • Comorbidities: Comorbidities are conditions that occur at the same time. In those with pyromania, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common comorbidity. People with ADHD can find it harder to control impulses, which may mean they are more vulnerable to impulse control disorders.

Arson is the crime of deliberately setting a fire. People engage in arson for many reasons, including:

  • peer pressure
  • for insurance money
  • to harm a person or institution

In contrast, pyromania causes a compulsion to set fires to relieve emotional tension. People with the disorder do not set fires with the intention of harming others or for an external reward.

Most people who engage in arson do not have pyromania. Most studies put the prevalence of pyromania among people who commit arson at less than 5%.

There is no dedicated test or questionnaire that can diagnose pyromania. Doctors and psychotherapists make the diagnosis according to the DSM-5-TR diagnostic criteria.

Online pyromania tests are also popular. But unless these tests specifically use DSM-5-TR criteria or validated pyromania measurement tools, they are not reliable.

Some online tests may also romanticize pyromania. For example, they may ask people if they think fire is beautiful or enjoyable to watch. In a safe environment, many individuals enjoy being around a log fire, so these types of questions could lead to false positives.

If a person has concerns they or someone else might have pyromania, they should speak with a mental health professional.

Treatment for pyromania focuses on family support and psychotherapy. Some effective treatment options include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps someone identify unhelpful thoughts and feelings and how they relate to their behavior
  • parent management training, which helps caregivers effectively manage their child’s behavior
  • multisystemic therapy, an intensive family therapy that addresses every aspect of a child’s life

There is no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drug for pyromania or other impulse control disorders.

Nevertheless, a doctor may prescribe medications to manage underlying symptoms, such as anxiety or depression. This may reduce the urge to set fires.

People should note that punitive treatments, such as boot camps, “tough love” camps, or incarceration, do not work. Instead, they may worsen symptoms.

Pyromania is an impulse control disorder that causes a person to set fires. This can cause destruction, endanger human lives, and subject a person to imprisonment. However, people with the disorder find it hard to stop. It may be a way of coping with emotional distress.

Most people who set fires do not have pyromania. For a person to have pyromania, they must feel fascinated by fire and fire paraphernalia and have no other conditions or factors that could better explain their behavior. For example, setting fires only when drunk or due to peer pressure would not qualify for a diagnosis of the condition.

Pyromania responds to therapy individual and family therapy — it does not respond to punishment or extreme interventions. People with concerns about someone’s behavior can speak with a doctor or mental health specialist.