What Is Popcorn Lung? What to Know About This Deadly Condition Caused By Vaping
So, here are a few things things we know about vaping so far: It can cause at least two types of pneumonia (chemical and lipoid, both fatal), it has caused fatal lung damage for at least one individual, and it has caused severe lung damage for at least 215 people, according to the CDC.
What's worse, doctors keep finding new ways in which vaping can be harmful. Case in point: something called "popcorn lung" (yes, that's really a thing). The American Lung Association (ALA) warns about popcorn lung's link to vaping on their website, and an entire 2016 report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives investigated the link, as well. Here's what you need to know.
What is popcorn lung?
Popcorn lung (aka, bronchitis obliterans) is caused by a chemical called diacetyl, according to the ALA. The name "popcorn lung" actually comes from diacetyl's butter flavoring (in the past, it was used to make popcorn). But, when the chemical started to make microwave popcorn factory workers sick by breathing it in, the chemical was removed from products made by major popcorn manufacturers. In fact, the ALA says diacetyl (and ultimately, popcorn lung) has been responsible for deaths as well as "hundreds of cases of bronchitis obliterans, a serious and irreversible lung disease."
What happens to your body when you develop popcorn lung definitely doesn't sound fun: “When inhaled, diacetyl causes ‘popcorn lung’—a scarring of the tiny air sacs in the lungs resulting in the thickening and narrowing of the airways,” per the ALA.
According to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD), a division of the NIH, symptoms of popcorn lung include shortness of breath, a dry cough, fatigue, and wheezing that isn’t caused by asthma or a cold—all of which can occur two to eight weeks following exposure to fumes (ammonia, nitrogen oxides, food flavoring fumes, welding fumes) or respiratory infections that can cause the condition.
According to GARD, there's no treatment for popcorn lung. But some medications, including antibiotics and immunosuppressive drugs, might be able to help patients manage the condition. A lung transplant might be recommended in severe cases. Cough suppressors and supplemental oxygen might also be suggested to help someone manage their symptoms, per GARD.
OK, but can vaping cause popcorn lung?
Apparently, yes. According to that 2016 report published in Environmental Health Perspectives mentioned earlier, diacetyl is quite common in vaping juices. The authors of the report tested 51 flavored e-cigarette liquids for the chemical and found it in 39. (The report also notes that 47 of the 51 tested products contained at the least one flavoring chemical.)
This is worrying given the documented evidence supporting the fact that diacetyl is extremely dangerous—fatal, even. “Because of the associations between diacetyl and bronchitis obliterans [popcorn lung] and other severe respiratory diseases observed in workers, urgent action is recommended to further evaluate this potentially widespread exposure via flavored e-cigarettes," the report warns.
The report points out that while most people focus on dangers such as nicotine addiction when they consider the harms of e-cigarettes, it’s important to remember that these devices (and the juices used in them) can also do severe damage to your lungs, sometimes even fatally.
So, if pneumonia and lung damage weren't enough to discourage you from vaping, remember that popcorn lung is a fatal side-effect—and please, put the e-cig down.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter