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Popcorn Lung: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatments

Published on Dec 8, 2023 by Thomas Law Offices.

Popcorn Lung Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatments
When many individuals think of adverse events that can befall workers on the job, they envision physical injuries such as broken bones that stem from slips and falls, for example. There is other harm a worker can suffer in their workplace, though, and that’s an occupational disease. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, workplace illnesses may include:

  • Cancers like mesothelioma
  • Stress-related conditions, like cardiovascular disease or stroke
  • Communicable diseases like hepatitis B and C or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Hearing difficulties
  • Respiratory diseases like asthma
  • Musculoskeletal diseases like carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Circulatory disorders and diseases

While there are too many workplace illnesses to count or list, one that we’d like to discuss in more depth today is popcorn lung, also known as bronchiolitis obliterans, a condition with which many U.S. workers get diagnosed each year.

What Is Popcorn Lung?

Bronchiolitis obliterans is a rare, irreversible type of lung disease that inflames and scars the small airways contained within our lungs. This scarring can cause patients to experience respiratory issues, including ones we’ll discuss below, that progressively worsen over time until a patient’s ultimate demise.

What Are the Causes of Popcorn Lung Disease?

Research published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) confirms that popcorn lung disease is most commonly acquired by individuals who work around a chemical called diacetyl and other similar toxins. Some workers with high exposure rates to toxic substances that commonly result in popcorn lung disease diagnoses include those employees who work in:

  • Microwave popcorn, coffee production, and other food product industries
  • E-cigarettes and the vaping products manufacturing industry

Symptoms Associated With Popcorn Lung

Most popcorn lung patients begin to show signs and symptoms of disease within as little as two to eight weeks after exposure to toxic substances known to cause this condition. For those patients, their health tends to deteriorate progressively during the weeks and months post-exposure. However, some patients may only start showing signs of disease years after their sickness sets in.

Initial symptoms of popcorn lung disease can be gradual and include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath

Over time, most individuals with this terminal respiratory condition begin to experience:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Chest tightness
  • Weight loss
  • Particularly labored breathing

In some instances, all of the above-referenced symptoms have a sudden onset.

Individuals who may have worked in an industry in which they were exposed to diacetyl should get checked out by a physician if they experience any of the above-referenced symptoms. While popcorn lung is an irreversible disease, early diagnosis and treatment can stave off further lung damage that causes even more debilitating and life-altering symptoms.

How Doctors Diagnose Popcorn Lung Disease

You can expect a doctor to perform a physical exam on you when you present with some of the symptoms above. It’s likely that they will also take chest X-rays and have you undergo a spirometry test as well.

As for the latter, it measures how much air you can inhale and exhale. Spirometry tests of those suffering from popcorn lung disease frequently show a decreased level of air exhalation compared to others.

What Treatment Options Exist for Popcorn Lung?

As referenced earlier, no cure exists for popcorn lung disease; however, there are treatment options that can help patients with this occupational disease better manage the symptoms they experience.

Doctors may pursue the following in treating popcorn lung patients:

  • Oxygen therapy: This treatment option can aid in improving popcorn lung patients’ breathing
  • Inhaled bronchodilators: Inhalers like these are effective in opening your lung’s airways
  • Corticosteroids: This medication aids in reducing inflammation in the lungs
  • Lung transplant: Patients with particularly aggressive or advanced-stage disease may find that their best treatment option is lung transplantation

Preventing Popcorn Lung Disease and Slowing Its Further Progression

Doctors also often recommend that those individuals at high risk for the disease, as well as those already diagnosed with popcorn lung, do the following to stave off or slow the progression of it:

  • Make healthy living choices, including exercising regularly and consuming a balanced diet
  • Quit smoking (vaping included)
  • Limit exposure to or wear protective clothing around chemicals like diacetyl that are known to cause popcorn lung disease

The Prognosis Popcorn Lung Patients Face

As hinted at above, bronchiolitis obliterans is much like mesothelioma, the latter of which is a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. In fact, popcorn lung disease and mesothelioma are similar in that they both:

  • Are occupational diseases affecting the lungs
  • Are caused by exposure to known toxins
  • Can have a delayed onset
  • Involve treatment options aimed to make the patient more comfortable instead of ridding them of disease
  • Considered to be terminal

Even when bronchiolitis obliterans patients receive some of the treatment options described above, their average prognosis is only around six years.

Know that if you’ve received a popcorn lung diagnosis, you may be eligible for Missouri workers’ compensation benefits if you can show that the condition had an onset in your workplace here in Columbia or elsewhere in our state. Additionally, you may even be eligible to file a third-party lawsuit if you can show that you contracted your disease because you weren’t made aware of the risks of exposure to certain toxins or provided with adequate protective equipment to keep you safe if you were.

Reach out to Thomas Law Offices with any questions about your right to recover workers’ compensation to cover your medical expenses, lost wages, and more. We’re eager to help you do your best to cope with your occupational illness.

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Meet Our Founder

Tad Thomas - Trial Lawyer

Tad Thomas

Managing Partner

Tad Thomas has dedicated his practice to representing plaintiffs in various types of civil litigation, including personal injury, business litigation, class actions, and multi-district litigation.

After graduating with his law degree in 2000 from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Thomas immediately opened his own private practice and began representing injury victims.

In 2011, Thomas Law Offices was established in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past decade, Mr. Thomas has expanded his firm and now has offices in three additional locations: Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. He is also a frequent lecturer on topics like trial skills and ethics and technology.

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