AUG 24, 2016 7:12 AM PDT

Diagnosed: Musician Died from ‘Bagpipe Lung'

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
 It seems unlikely that being a musician could come with any big health risks. However, for one bagpiper from the United Kingdom, his instrument was the source of his fatal infection.
 
The man was 61-years-old who practiced his bagpipe regularly. Doctors noted he had a history of bad health but couldn’t pinpoint the cause of his illness. In particular, he suffered from hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a fancy name to describe a serious inflammation in the lungs triggered by some allergen.
 
Bagpipe lung: A new type of lung disease? | Image: pixabay.com

The doctors searched his home for mold but found none. They suspected his birds contributed to his lung inflammation, but the evidence also didn’t check out.
 
The turning point came when doctors analyzed the patient’s habits and travels. In particular, they noted his health seemed to have improved mildly when he traveled to Australia for 3 months, leaving his bagpipes at home. When he returned home and resumed his musical practice, the symptoms flared up once again.
 
They suspected the allergens were living inside the bagpipes. Indeed, laboratory tests cinched the diagnosis. “We isolated mold and fungi that are known to be associated with hypersensitivity pneumonitis and propose that was the likely cause of it,” said Jenny King, first author of the study. “It is likely [down to] spores from the fungi and mold that, when you inhale them, your body and your immune system react to them,” she explained. The patient appeared to have had an intense immune reaction to the spores, which was unfortunately not caught before he passed away.
 
Of note, the condition hypersensitivity pneumonitis is not new, nor is it strictly confined to bagpipers. This case and others like it, however, have had doctors dubbing it “bagpiper’s lung.” Add this to the list of other names associated with this disease, such as “bird fancier’s lung”, “farmer’s lung” and even “hot tub lung.”
 

“[Musicians] need to be aware that there are risks that instruments can become colonized with mold and fungi and this can be related to serious and potentially fatal lung disease,” said Dr. Jenny King, first author of the study, of North Manchester general hospital.
 
Before the advent of new synthetic fabrics, bagpipes were made with leather, which required daily “seasoning” treatments. As it turns out, the seasoning not only maintained the leather quality, it also acted as an antiseptic to keep bacteria and fungi out. With synthetic fabric, the need for daily seasoning was eliminated, leaving a damp environment where microbes thrived.
 
The moral of the story? If you’re a trumpeter, saxophonist, piper or a player of any wind instrument, make sure to take instrument hygiene seriously. “Wind instrument hygiene is really important in preventing this and [musicians] should be stringent in cleaning their instruments regularly,” said King.

Additional source: BBC News
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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