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What Is Popcorn Lung And What Are Its Symptoms?

A condition wherein you cough a lot and tend to feel short of breath is termed as popcorn lung. Read on to know more about this condition, its causes, signs, symptoms and how it can be diagnosed and treated.

What Is Popcorn Lung?

Popcorn lung is medically referred to as bronchiolitis obliterans. This condition damages the small airways of the lungs making you feel short of breath and cough badly for long periods. This ailment is sometimes caused when you inhale a chemical that is used to flavour popcorn that is meant to be cooked in the microwave. However, other factors could also result in this condition.

The blood picks up oxygen from your lungs. When you inhale, air flows into the lungs through your windpipe. The windpipe divides into bronchi leading to the right and left lungs. These tubes split again, the smallest of which are called bronchioles. These bronchioles end at alveoli. Oxygen is picked up by your blood in these alveoli.

When you have popcorn lung, the tiny air passages (where the bronchioles end) are inflamed and irritated. Scarring causes it to become narrow. This makes taking in air difficult and hence causes shortness of breath.

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How Is Popcorn Lung Caused?

This condition is mostly caused by a chemical known as diacetyl. This chemical had been used to flavour microwave popcorn. This was identified when several workers who worked at a factory that packaged microwave popcorn were diagnosed with this ailment.

Another chemical, acetaldehyde, has also been found responsible for causing popcorn lung. This chemical is found in smoke from electronic cigarettes and marijuana. This chemical damages the lining of the mouth, throat and stomach.

Other chemicals that can cause popcorn lung are sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde (used in glues and building materials), metal oxide fumes (a byproduct of welding), chlorine, hydrochloric acid, sulfur mustard (mustard gas), ammonia and nitrogen oxides.

Illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis can also lead to popcorn lung. This ailment can also occur as a side effect of rheumatoid arthritis.

In case of a lung transplant, the occurrence of bronchiolitis obliterans indicates that the body is rejecting the new organ. Many people die due to this condition after a lung transplant.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Popcorn Lung?

The primary symptoms of this ailment are:

• Shortness of breath

• Dry cough

The symptoms begin to show any time between two weeks to two months since you fell ill or began to have an exposure to certain chemicals/toxic gas.

The symptoms are more prominent when you are doing some heavy tasks or exercising.

The symptoms can take a few years to show up if it is the outcome of a lung transplant.

Feeling tired too often or wheezing in spite of not having a cold or asthma could also be signs of this illness.

How Is It Diagnosed?

The signs of popcorn lung such as a dry cough and shortness of breath can make you feel the need to approach a doctor at the earliest. A CT scan of your chest might be prescribed by your doctor to conduct a proper diagnosis of the illness. A complete picture is obtained after taking several x-rays from various angles. The functionality of the lungs also needs to be checked.

The chest x-rays help the doctor determine if your lungs are holding a lot of air. Apart from the x-rays, the other best way to find this out is through a biopsy. This involves taking a small piece from your lungs and then studying it closely under a microscope. The sample for biopsy is obtained after numbing a small part on your chest and then inserting a long needle to collect the sample. The alternative to this is obtaining the sample through a surgical procedure.

What Are The Different Treatment Options?

It is essential to be able to identify the signs and symptoms of this ailment early so that it can receive proper treatment. Ignoring the symptoms can make the condition worse causing a long-lasting damage that can be irreversible. Early detection can help in reducing the worsening chances of this ailment.

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Take the following measures:

• If it is identified that the cause of popcorn lung is breathing in harmful or toxic chemicals, then you need to ensure that you stay away from this toxic gas at all costs. Wear protective gear when working in such an environment. Changing your job is also advisable.

• The inflammation that scars your airways can be treated with the use of steroids or antibiotics.

• The bronchioles can be prevented from permanent damage by using drugs that are created to work by slowing down your immune system.

• If the coughing is unbearable, your doctor can prescribe a specific medicine to help it subside. Oxygen is given in severe cases when breathing becomes extremely difficult.

Read more about: popcorn lung
Story first published: Friday, September 21, 2018, 12:35 [IST]
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