For years, doctors were stumped by their patient’s persistent lung problems. By the time the 61-year-old resident of Liverpool, England died in 2014, he had spent seven years fighting a mysterious illness that left him struggling to breathe or walk. But in a recent study published in the journal Thorax, researchers say they have finally identified the cause: his beloved bagpipes.
"It sounds like a Monty Python skit or an Agatha Christie story gone wrong," William Schaffner, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, tells Liz Szabo for USA Today.
The unnamed patient suffered from a rare condition called “hypersensitivity pneumonitis” – an inflammatory condition that occurs when the immune system goes into overdrive in an attempt to eject pathogens. The hyperactive reaction can cause scarring in the lungs that worsens over time and can eventually become fatal if the source of the trigger isn’t identified, the BBC reports. But while other people in the past have contracted the condition from exposure to mold, yeast and dust found in things like pigeon feathers and saxophones, this is the first known instance of someone dying from “bagpipe lung.”
"If you can diagnose these problems early and remove the trigger then they can be treated and the prognosis is really good," Jenny King, a doctor who originally helped to treat the patient, tells the BBC. "These organisms are around in the air, but they're not usually at a high enough level to cause problems. You do sometimes see this type of lung problem in people who work on farms and are exposed to lots of moldy hay."
While King’s patient struggled with his symptoms for years, she began to suspect that his beloved bagpipes —which he played daily despite his illness—may be the culprit. During a three-month-long trip to Australia, his lungs began to clear up. But upon return to his daily practice regimen, the symptoms rapidly returned, Sara Miller reports for LiveScience.
When King and her colleagues tested the man’s bagpipes for potential triggers, they found that the instrument was rife with mold and yeast, thriving in the dark, damp environment. Every time he picked up the pipes, he inhaled even more of the nasty particles, exacerbating his symptoms.
Sadly, by the time King and her colleagues tested the bagpipes, their patient had been hospitalized. He died shortly after. Though doctors nicknamed the condition “bagpipe lung,” experts say nearly any woodwind or brass instrument can support similar molds and yeast if they aren’t properly and regularly cleaned, the BBC reports. In the past, trombone and saxophonists have been diagnosed with the disease, though this is the first reported instance of a death by bagpipe. While King says there’s no reason to fear playing the pipes in and of themselves, musicians should be aware of the dangers and be diligent about keeping their instruments clean.