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The Truth About Popcorn Lung (Bronchiolitis Obliterans)

Popcorn lung is a serious and irreversible medical condition in which the tiny air sacs in the lungs become scarred and constricted, resulting in no air movement or oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange in the lungs.

Over time, inflammation associated with popcorn lung causes lung tissues and airways to scar and narrow. This makes breathing difficult.

Popcorn lung is also known as bronchiolitis obliterans or obliterative bronchiolitis.

The lungs are where our blood picks up oxygen before carrying it to cells in the rest of our body. When we breathe in, air flows into our lungs through our windpipe or trachea. Our windpipe divides into two tubes called the bronchi, which lead to our left and right lungs.

Inside our lungs, those tubes split again and again, like the branches of a tree, and the smallest of those branches are called bronchioles. They end in tiny air sacs called alveoli. The alveoli are where the oxygen is picked up by our blood.

When you have “popcorn lung,” those tiny air passages get irritated and inflamed, leading to scarring that makes them narrower. This makes it harder for you to get enough oxygen (air).

Causes Of Popcorn Lung

Chemical damage to the lung tissues can cause popcorn lung. Although some hereditary conditions can cause popcorn lung also, it is not considered an inheritable disorder.

  • Breathing in harmful chemicals, particles, or toxins can lead to popcorn lung, and food-flavoring fumes produced during the manufacture of candies, potato chips, popcorn, and dairy products, are major culprits.
  • Fumes from industrial chemicals, such as ammonia or chlorine
  • Exposure to nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
  • Exposure to metallic fumes from construction activities, such as welding
  • Exposure to industrial air particles, such as complex dust

Other factors that have been linked to cause or increase the likelihood of developing popcorn lung include:

  • certain viral or bacterial respiratory infections
  • having had a transplant
  • suffering from immune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and hypersensitivity pneumonitis
  • Certain drugs, such as penicillamine, and 5-fluorouracil.

Transplant surgeries may cause graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when the body rejects organ transplantation, particularly after lung, bone marrow, or stem cell transplants. This graft-versus-host reaction can also lead to popcorn lung.

Symptoms Of Popcorn Lung

The main symptoms of popcorn lung are a dry cough and shortness of breath, and these symptoms show up between 2 weeks and 2 months after you’ve been around a toxic gas or had an illness.

You’re especially likely to experience them when you’re exercising or doing heavy labor. For those who have undergone lung transplant, it might take several years for symptoms to show up.

If you feel tired without an obvious reason or wheeze when you don’t have asthma or a cold, that also could be a symptom of popcorn lung. Concisely, symptoms include:

  • Fevers
  • Night Sweats
  • A cough (could be chronic)
  • Shortness of breath, and
  • Weight loss

E-Cigarettes And Popcorn Lung

A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed that harmful chemicals associated with “popcorn lung” are present in many types of flavored e-cigarettes.

This is particularly those with flavors like fruit and candy that may appeal to young smokers. This suggests a potentially high level of exposure through e-cigarettes to chemicals that can cause severe lung damage like popcorn lung.

Read: The Truth About Smoking: 12 Ways Smoking Can Leave You Needing A Doctor

Treatment of Popcorn Lung

Popcorn lung causes lasting damage, but if you do find out early, you might be able to slow it down or keep it from getting worse.

You’ll want to stay away from harmful chemicals if it was caused by breathing in harmful chemicals. You might need to wear protective gear at work or better still, change jobs.

Your doctor may give you antibiotics or steroids to ease the inflammation that can scar your airways, and drugs that slow down your immune system may help protect your bronchioles from more damage.

Your doctor may also give you medicine to help with your cough, but according to the CDC, most individuals show little or no response to medical treatments for popcorn lung.

However, if a person is diagnosed early and exposure to the chemicals is stopped, he or she may note a discontinuation of symptoms.



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