What is Popcorn Lung and Can Vaping Cause It?

“Popcorn lung” is the nickname for bronchiolitis obliterans, a serious and irreversible lung disease that can damage the smallest airways in your lungs, resulting in coughing and shortness of breath.

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The condition got its nickname because of the chemical diacetyl, a buttery flavored chemical that was commonly found in microwave popcorn.  After workers at the factories that produced microwave popcorn began to experience symptoms associated with bronchiolitis obliterans after inhaling diacetyl, manufacturers removed it from their products.

While diacetyl is no longer a threat from microwaved popcorn, many are now being exposed to it through e-cigarette vapor. Diacetyl is often added to “e-juice” liquid by some e-cigarette companies to complement flavorings such as vanilla, maple, coconut and more. In fact, recent studies have found that more than 75 percent of flavored e-cigarettes and refill liquids tested positive for diacetyl

So how does diacetyl cause popcorn lung? Your lungs are where your blood receives oxygen before carrying it to cells in the rest of your body through tiny air sacs called alveoli. Exposure to diacetyl can irritate or scar the alveoli, causing inflammation or narrowing, making it difficult for them to deliver oxygen to your blood.

The main symptoms of popcorn lung are a dry cough and shortness of breath. These show up between two weeks and two months after you’ve been around a toxic gas or had an illness. You’re especially likely to have them after exercising or heavy labor.

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

Popcorn lung is often misdiagnosed as asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema. To diagnose popcorn lung, your doctor will order an X-ray, CT scan or a surgical lung biopsy. Your doctor may also want to measure your lung’s function by conducting a pulmonary function test.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for popcorn lung, but there are treatments to help alleviate the symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. Treatment options include prescription corticosteroids, cough suppressants, bronchodilators to open the airways or immunosuppressant therapy to decrease your body’s immune response. In severe cases oxygen supplementation may be needed. If left untreated, popcorn lung can be fatal in some cases.

The best way to prevent developing popcorn lung is to avoid exposure to harmful chemicals like diacetyl, found in e-cigarettes.

If you are experiencing symptoms of popcorn lung, make an appointment to see your doctor. To make an appointment with a Pulmonologist at Jamaica Hospital, please call our Ambulatory Care Department at 718-206-7001.