Popcorn Lung

Popcorn lung disease receives this name because one of its causes is the inhalation of a compound with which this food is made. We explain it to you.

Popcorn lung disease is a recently described condition. It is the common way of referring to obliterative bronchiolitis. Actually, this disorder is rare, but its incidence is increasing progressively.

Popcorn lung disease has this name because the first cases described appeared in people exposed to a compound with which this food was made. The problem is that it significantly alters the capacity of the lungs. Therefore, in this article, we explain why it occurs and how to avoid it.


What is popcorn lung disease?

Popcorn lung disease, as we’ve noted, is also called obliterative bronchiolitisThis is explained by the American Lung AssociationThis term refers to inflammation of the bronchioles. They are the branches of the bronchi, that is, part of the lower airway.

When the bronchioles become inflamed, edema occurs at this level of the airways. In addition, the process leads to the appearance of fibrosis. All these events mean that the bronchioles are narrower each time, and the air cannot arrive correctly.

Popcorn lung disease was first described in people who worked in popcorn factories. This is because they were exposed to something called diacetyl. It is a substance that occurs naturally in some fermentation processes and is used frequently in the food industry. It is used to give food a butter flavor.

In most cases, this flavoring is combined with other ingredients to obtain the artificial flavor. The problem is, when inhaled, diacetyl vapor can lead to popcorn lung disease.

Why is it produced?

One of the main causes is the inhalation of diacetyl, which is toxic to the lungs. However, other origins have been described. The use of electronic cigarettes, for example, seems to be one of them. This is the main reason that the incidence of obliterative bronchiolitis increases.

Many think that they are a good option to give up tobacco. Until recently, the possible harmfulness of this type of cigarette was unknown. In fact, many of its side effects are still being investigated today.

study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed that almost 75% of people who smoked e-cigarettes or vapers had diacetyl in their lungs. That is, they were exposed to the same chemical as workers in certain food factories.

Additionally, popcorn lung disease can be secondary to other conditions. For example, it can appear after a lung transplant. In this case, it is due to chronic rejection of the said organ.

Other causes

A study published in Science and Health explains that obliterative bronchiolitis in the case of children usually appears after a respiratory infection. It is usually caused by adenovirus. However, there have also been cases of influenza, measles, or Legionella infections.

Another possible cause of popcorn lung disease is an autoimmune disease. For example, certain vasculitis, which are disorders in which inflammation of the blood vessel walls occurs. It can even appear in rheumatoid arthritis.

Similarly, there are cases secondary to the intake of certain drugs. Any inhaled substance, such as cocaine, produces severe lung damage, as they are toxic to the tissue.

Symptoms of popcorn lung disease

Popcorn lung disease doesn’t cause immediate symptoms. In fact, it is estimated that symptoms appear between two and eight weeks after exposure to the chemical in question.

When the cause is an autoimmune disorder or a lung transplant, it can take years for symptoms to appear. The injury that occurs is the obstruction of the bronchioles, which is irreversible.

This leads to lower lung capacity—expiratory power, which is the action of expelling air from the lungs, decreases. Popcorn lung disease clinically resembles a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The latter is very common in smokers.

According to specialists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common symptoms include non-productive cough and shortness of breath. In addition, wheezing may appear, sounds similar to a hiss.

Some people experience constant tiredness and general malaise. Similarly, there may be a fever, weight loss, or night sweats. When the cause is exposure to a chemical, it is common to find irritation in the eyes or on the skin.

How is it treated?

According to the National Center for Advancing Translational Science, a specific and optimal treatment for this pathology has not yet been established. What is known is that measures should be used to reduce the symptoms and the resulting complications.

First, if the disease is advanced, and the patient is hypoxemic, it is essential to administer oxygen. Similarly, it is recommended to vaccinate these people against certain viruses, such as influenza. In this way, the possibility of acquiring a concomitant pathology is reduced.

Another of the pillars of treatment is respiratory physiotherapy. People with popcorn lung disease should stay away from contaminants or irritants. That is why it is essential that they stop smoking and avoid places where there is smoke.

The most useful drugs in the treatment of this pathology are corticosteroids. They reduce airway inflammation and can be administered orally or intravenously.

Popcorn lung disease prevention

Popcorn lung disease can be preventable. Above all, it is important to stop using electronic cigarettes.  Also, as we have seen, many of the cases occur in factory workers. That is why it is key that all employees have access to good safety equipment.

What we must bear in mind is that this pathology is irreversible. It produces serious consequences at the lung level that can greatly reduce the quality of life.

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