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Hypersensitivity pneumonitis

Definition

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is inflammation of the lungs due to breathing in a foreign substance, usually certain types of dust, fungus, or molds.

Alternative Names

Extrinsic allergic alveolitis; Farmer's lung; Mushroom picker's disease; Humidifier or air-conditioner lung; Bird breeder's or bird fancier's lung

Causes

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis usually occurs in people who work in places where there are high levels of organic dusts, fungus, or molds.

Long-term exposure can lead to lung inflammation and acute lung disease. Over time, the acute condition turns into long-lasting (chronic) lung disease.

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis may also be caused by fungi or bacteria in humidifiers, heating systems, and air conditioners found in homes and offices. Exposure to certain chemicals, such as isocyanates or acid anhydrides, can also lead to hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Examples of hypersensitivity pneumonitis include:

Bird fancier's lung: This is the most common type of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. It is caused by repeated or intense exposure to proteins found in the feathers or droppings of many species of birds.

Farmer's lung: This type of hypersensitivity pneumonitis is caused by exposure to dust from moldy hay, straw, and grain.

Symptoms

Symptoms of acute hypersensitivity pneumonitis often occur 4 to 6 hours after you have left the area where the offending substance is found. This makes it difficult to find a connection between your activity and the disease. Symptoms might resolve before you go back to the area where you encountered the substance.

Symptoms may include:

Symptoms of chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis may include:

  • Breathlessness, especially with activity
  • Cough, often dry
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintentional weight loss

Exams and Tests

Your dosctor may hear abnormal lung sounds called crackles (rales) when listening to your chest with a stethoscope.

Lung changes due to chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis may be seen on a chest x-ray. Other tests may include:

Treatment

First, the offending substance must be identified. Treatment involves avoiding this substance in the future. Some people may need to change jobs if they cannot avoid the substance at work.

If you have a chronic form of this disease, your doctor may recommend that you take glucocorticoids (anti-inflammatory medicines). Sometimes treatments used for asthma can help people with hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Most symptoms go away when you avoid or limit your exposure to the material that caused the problem.

Possible Complications

The chronic form of this disease may lead to pulmonary fibrosis. This is a scarring of the lung tissue that often is not reversible. Eventually, end-stage lung disease and respiratory failure can occur.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you develop symptoms of hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Prevention

The chronic form can be prevented by avoiding the material that causes the lung inflammation.

References

Douglass JA, Sandrini A, Holgate ST, O'Hehir RE. Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. In: Adkinson NF, Bochner BS, Burks W, et al, eds. Middleton's Allergy: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 61.

Patterson KC, Rose CS. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 64.

Review Date:6/22/2015
Reviewed By:Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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