Popcorn lung (bronchiolitis obliterans) is a rare condition that causes thick scar tissue to build up in the lungs. This disease, for which there is no cure, is caused by inflammation that may be the result of inhaling harmful substances. Read on for how vaping and popcorn lung may be related.
You might think that “popcorn lung” was given its moniker because the illness makes your lung resemble popcorn, but the explanation is actually much more direct: In 2000, the condition (which is officially called bronchiolitis obliterans) was discovered in eight workers who were employed at the Glister-Mary Lee microwave popcorn plant in Jasper, Missouri. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that inhaling a chemical called diacetyl, found in the popcorn’s butter flavoring, was one of the underlying causes of the disease.
Since popcorn lung hit the media as an inhalant-based illness more than 20 years ago, many people continue to wonder what else contains diacetyl, and whether vaping cannabis can lead to a popcorn lung diagnosis.
Diacetyl: The Flavor Chemical
While the diacetyl connection was made in a popcorn plant, the chemical is often referred to as “the flavor chemical.” Its connection to bronchiolitis obliterans is not restricted to butter flavoring; diacetyl is found in many other flavor additives, including fruit and candy flavors. It’s also used in other industries, from textiles to battery production to welding. Other chemicals are also related to popcorn lung, including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, metal oxide fumes, ammonia, chlorine, mustard gas and more. The condition can also be a post-lung or stem cell transplant complication, a post-infectious issue or a comorbidity with other illnesses including IBD, GERD and rheumatoid arthritis.
E-cigarettes and cannabis vapes can include diacetyl, given that many vapes and cartridges are produced with artificial flavouring, but more and more companies are preparing solvent-free products in order to decrease the risk of inhaling harmful substances. The best way to determine if your vape or cartridge includes diacetyl is to do your research and reach out to the manufacturer. Any product you buy should be sold by a reputable company that operates out of a professional laboratory; this means they will also have a list of exactly what’s included in their products. It’s worth noting that many companies have reduced or eliminated the use of diacetyl in recent years (in fact, the substance was banned from vape products in the UK in 2016) but it’s still worth double-checking.
The Symptoms of Popcorn Lung
If popcorn lung makes you anxious, you should note that it’s actually quite rare in the general population. Not everyone with popcorn lung will present with symptoms, but if you experience any of the following respiratory concerns in the absence of a cold or asthma, give your doctor a call:
- Shortness of breath
- Dry cough
Symptoms usually develop and worsen over a period of weeks or months. They can also worsen during exercise or while doing physical labor. Other systemic reactions, such as a skin rash, may occur.
How Popcorn Lung is Diagnosed and Treated
Like other lung conditions, popcorn lung is usually diagnosed after your doctor takes a detailed medical and environmental exposure history, performs a physical exam and orders the appropriate diagnostic tests. The latter can include a chest X-ray or CT scan, as well as lung function tests to determine how much air you’re able to breathe in and out. A lung biopsy may also be necessary.
Unfortunately, popcorn lung is irreversible and chronic but it can be managed by addressing the inflammation in your body. The treatment may include corticosteroids as well as an inhaler. If the condition can be linked to an inhalant, it goes without saying that you must also reduce or eliminate your exposure to the toxin.
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