What is popcorn lung?

Bronchiolitis obliterans is a rare form of lung disease. It’s commonly called popcorn lung.

Popcorn lung results in scarring and inflammation to the bronchioles. These are the lung’s smallest airways. When they’re inflamed, symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing can occur.

“Popcorn lung” may sound strange, but it got that name for a good reason. Workers in a popcorn factory became sick after breathing in harmful chemicals.

One of those chemicals is diacetyl. It’s an artificial butter-flavored ingredient found in:

  • popcorn
  • fruit drinks
  • caramel
  • some dairy products

While the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers diacetyl generally safe to eat, it’s dangerous when inhaled.

Many food companies have removed it from their products, but it’s still found in the majority of e-cigarette flavors.

Symptoms of popcorn lung are similar to those of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Popcorn lung symptoms often occur two to eight weeks after exposure to harmful chemicals, particles, or toxic fumes.

Common symptoms include difficulty breathing and a persistent, progressive, and dry cough.

These symptoms may develop over weeks to months and will often occur regularly. They’re not episodic like asthma, for example.

Other symptoms may include:

  • flu-like illness with fever
  • unexplained fatigue
  • weight loss
  • wheezing
  • eye, skin, mouth, or nose irritation, if caused by chemical exposure

Seek immediate medical attention if your symptoms worsen, or if you experience:

  • difficulty breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • dizziness

Popcorn lung can result from exposure to certain harmful chemicals, particles, and toxic fumes found in microwave popcorn factories and e-cigarettes.

However, the toxic fumes and chemicals associated with popcorn lung aren’t limited to just these factories or e-cigarettes.

Other conditions can lead to popcorn lung as well. Some of these include:

Typically, it takes two to eight weeks after illness or chemical exposure for symptoms to begin. In other cases, like a lung transplant, it may take several months or years before symptoms appear.

One way to reduce your risk for popcorn lung is to limit or stop the use of e-cigarettes.

Researchers found that more than 75 percent of flavored e-cigarettes and refill liquids tested positive for diacetyl — the same chemical responsible for this disease in microwave popcorn factory workers.

While the long-term health effects of e-cigarette smoke and vaping haven’t been extensively studied yet, they may increase your risk for lung damage.

For now, the best way to reduce your risk of lung damage is to stop smoking e-cigarettes. Check out our top apps of the year that will help you overcome your nicotine addiction.

Popcorn lung is often misdiagnosed as asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema. Talk to your doctor about your concerns if you suspect you have popcorn lung.

To diagnose popcorn lung, your doctor will order a chest X-ray or CT scan. They may also use a pulmonary function test. This test measures how well your lungs are functioning.

The most definitive way to diagnose popcorn lung is a surgical lung biopsy.

General anesthesia may be needed for this type of biopsy. Your surgeon will make an incision on your chest and remove a piece of lung tissue. They’ll then send the lung sample to a lab for analysis.

Your doctor will help determine which method of diagnosis is best for your situation.

There’s currently no cure for popcorn lung, but there are treatments to help alleviate symptoms. Treatment may also help slow the progression of the disease.

One option for treatment is prescription corticosteroids. Your doctor may also recommend immunosuppressant therapy to decrease your body’s immune response.

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may also prescribe:

  • cough suppressants
  • bronchodilators (medication that helps open the airways)
  • or oxygen supplementation, if needed

Some people living with severe cases of popcorn lung are candidates for a lung transplant. However, popcorn lung may redevelop as a complication of the transplant.

If left untreated, popcorn lung can be fatal in some cases.

See your doctor if you’re showing symptoms of popcorn lung or think you may have been exposed to harmful chemicals. They can refer you to a specialist or figure out the best treatment plan for you.

To prevent popcorn lung, you’ll need to avoid or limit your exposure to chemicals like diacetyl.

If you’re at risk of popcorn lung at your workplace, ensure appropriate engineering controls are in place. Use personal protective equipment as well.

If you’re having trouble quitting vaping or e-cigarettes, talk to a healthcare provider or call 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669). You can also visit SmokeFree.gov.

You can also enroll in SmokefreeTXT to receive text messages each day to support you in quitting smoking.

While popcorn lung is an irreversible condition, treatment can help you manage your symptoms.

The best way to prevent popcorn lung is to limit exposure to harmful toxins and chemicals. Make sure you’re protected at work and quit smoking, including e-cigarettes and vaping devices.