Pieces of popcorn on an x-ray of lungs.

Everything There is to Know About Popcorn Lung

What is Popcorn Lung?

Oxygen is necessary for life, and the lungs are integral for its delivery. The average person takes about 6 million breaths per year, and every breath brings precious oxygen into the body. When the lungs are damaged through injury, disease, or environmental exposure, as in the case of popcorn lung, it compromises the ability to breath and obtain oxygen. But what is popcorn lung? Let’s get into it.

Popcorn Lung Explained

Officially called bronchiolitis obliterans in medical circles, it is a chronic lung disease that causes scarring of the lung’s air sacs, thickening of lung tissue and narrowing of airways.

Within the lungs are tubes that split over and over into increasingly smaller branches made up of tiny tubes. At the end of the smallest of these branches are small sacs called alveoli. It’s at this point that oxygen moves into the bloodstream.

When an individual has popcorn lung, those tiny air passages get irritated and inflamed. That leads to scarring that makes them narrower. That makes it harder for you to get enough air.

The symptoms are similar to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. These symptoms range from minor symptoms, like coughing, to something as problematic as severe respiratory distress and wheezing.

The nickname stems from a specific event where cases of bronchiolitis obliterans were identified. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found bronchiolitis obliterans in employees of a factory involved in the manufacturing of microwavable popcorn. After extensive investigation, the cause of the illnesses was found to be the flavoring agent used to give microwaveable popcorn its buttery flavor.

The factory employees were unknowingly inhaling this flavoring, which contained diacetyl — a chemical that is toxic to the lungs. Other chemicals identified as potential causes for bronchiolitis obliterans are:

  • Ammonia.
  • Acetaldehyde.
  • Diacetyl.
  • Formaldehyde.
  • Nitrogen oxides.
  • Hydrochloric acid.
  • Metal oxides (from welding metal).
  • Mustard gas (a chemical weapon).
  • Sulfur dioxide.
  • Chlorine.

Popcorn lung can also result from a bout of pneumonia or bronchitis or because of autoimmune conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis. Individuals with nontuberculous mycobacterial lung disease (NTM) — typically caused by mycobacterium avium complex, or MAC — have a higher risk of developing popcorn lung.

Researchers are still exploring the links between the two conditions, and both illnesses can present similar signs and symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Popcorn Lung

According to the American Lung Association, the symptoms may differ from person to person and may come and go. Signs of popcorn lung typically show about two to eight weeks after environmental exposure or an illness.

The most common symptoms of popcorn lung include:

  • Dry cough.
  • Wheezing (in the absence of illness or asthma).
  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Fever.
  • Fatigue.
  • Severe respiratory distress.
  • Weight loss.

Depending on the exposure, other areas of the body may also show symptoms. For example, skin rashes can develop alongside respiratory symptoms.

Can Vaping Cause Popcorn Lung?

A growing body of evidence shows that vaping places individuals at a high risk for developing bronchiolitis obliterans. Flavored vaping products with innocuous names, like Cupcake and Cotton Candy, may sound harmless, but more than 75% of electronic cigarettes contain known toxins, like diacetyl.

Sadly, makers of these flavored vaping products target adolescent consumers, which can lead to the possibility of lifelong chronic lung problems.

Treatment for Popcorn Lung

Though there are no cures, but treatments can slow progression of the disease and alleviate symptoms. The best treatments depend on each individual because progression of popcorn lung depends on a person’s current health status, the severity of the disease and the amount of exposure.

1. Medication

Medication prescribed for bronchiolitis obliterans includes:

  • Macrolide antibiotics to treat infection and help with inflammation.
  • Corticosteroids, like prednisone and other immunosuppressive drugs, to reduce inflammation.
  • Cough suppressants to ease discomfort and reduce coughing.
  • Supplemental oxygen to boost blood oxygen levels.
  • Bronchodilators to help open the airways. These medications expand bronchial tubes, thus improving wheezing and shortness of breath.

2. Lung Transplantation

Most individuals will never need lung surgery. For the most part, doctors only reserve lung surgery or transplants for the most severe and life-threatening cases. Lung transplants are a last resort and used only when standard treatment options fail.

Preventing Popcorn Lung

The best way to avoid popcorn lung is to practice a healthy lifestyle and avoid environmental toxins. If individuals must work near chemicals, taking precautions, like wearing a mask or ensuring adequate ventilation, can reduce the chances of exposure.

Personal choices and habits also play a significant role in maintaining lung health. Avoiding smoking, whether it is regular cigarettes or vaping, goes a long way in preventing lung-related chronic illnesses.

Early Detection

Because popcorn lung disease is a progressive disease, it is essential to spot the condition at its earlier stages. Early disease recognition allows health professionals to slow popcorn lung at its beginning stages, preventing further damage. Therefore, individuals who work in hazardous environments or have a history of smoking or vaping should see a healthcare professional regularly for a thorough health assessment. Recognizing the signs of popcorn lung in its early stages can prevent further damage and save a life.

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