What is popcorn lung?

78 points

Never heard of ‘popcorn lung’ before? If you vape, then there’s a good chance you’re familiar with it. But, it won’t hurt to recap the basics…

Popcorn lung (aka bronchitis obliterans) is a rare type of lung disease, caused by a chemical called diacetyl. Its name originates from the artificial buttery flavour which can be found in popcorn, fruit-flavoured drinks, caramel and some dairy products. 

After workers in a popcorn factory became unwell after breathing in the harmful chemical, many leading manufacturers decided to remove it from their products to ensure the safety of their employees and consumers too. Yet despite this, diacetyl is still found in some (not all) e-juices today.

What does it do?

The respiratory disease affects the smaller airways in the lungs – known as the bronchioles – and causes scarring and inflammation. When this happens, it narrows the bronchioles and makes it difficult for your lungs to get the air they need. 

Symptoms include:

  • a persistent, progressive and dry cough
  • shortness of breath
  • breathing difficulty
  • flu-like symptoms (i.e. fever)
  • unexplained fatigue
  • weight loss
  • wheezing
  • eye, skin, mouth or nose irritation

There have been instances where popcorn lung has been misdiagnosed as asthma, bronchitis or emphysema. However, the symptoms typically occur within 2-8 weeks of exposure and get progressively worse – as opposed to asthma which is more sporadic.

What causes popcorn lung? 

It can result from exposure to certain harmful chemicals, particles and toxic fumes that are commonly found in microwave popcorn factories and sometimes e-cigarettes. 

Other factors that contribute to popcorn lung include:

  • respiratory illnesses (e.g. pneumonia or bronchitis)
  • viral infections
  • collagen vascular diseases
  • drug reactions
  • lung transplants 

Does vaping cause popcorn lung?

Popcorn lung is rare and, although some e-cigarette users may worry about it, there is insufficient evidence that vaping causes the lung condition. Plus, the UK banned diacetyl under the EU Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) in 2016 – meaning that no e-liquids sold in the UK will contain the harmful substance, making them safer to consume.

How to reduce your risk of popcorn lung

Unfortunately, there is no cure for popcorn lung – and the scarring in your lungs is permanent. But the earlier it is diagnosed and treated, the better.

You could try prescribed medications from the doctor, such as inhalers, steroids and antibiotics, or have your name put on the lung transplant list. However, the most effective way to prevent the disease, or at least slow the progression of it, is to limit/avoid exposure to chemicals, like diacetyl! 

And, if you vape, always double (or triple!) check the ingredients of your e-liquids before you buy them. Make sure you purchase from a reputable supplier only – someone like Cloudstix – who offer an extensive range of TPD compliant e-liquids. 

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