Playing the bagpipes can be deadly, as evidenced by the case of a British man who perished thanks to a condition that doctors have labeled “bagpipe lung”. Writing in the journal Thorax, researchers explain how the 61-year-old Highland music enthusiast had been diagnosed with a lung disease called hypersensitivity pneumonitis in 2009, yet it wasn’t until after his death in 2014 that they put two and two together and discovered that his condition had been caused by mold and fungi lurking inside his bagpipes.
Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that is caused by the body’s immune response to inhaled pathogens. It can be triggered by a number of factors, such as regular exposure to pigeons, and is therefore sometimes referred to as “bird fancier’s lung”. However, this is the first time that the condition has been linked to playing wind instruments, hence the creation of its new moniker.
The victim’s initial diagnosis had left doctors a little dumbfounded, as he wasn’t particular fond of pigeons, didn’t smoke, and lived in a reasonably well-kept house that was free of mold and fungus. In spite of this, his symptoms continued to deteriorate, leaving him unable to walk more than 20 meters at a time, and becoming short of breath. This prompted his admission to hospital in 2014, where he died despite being treated with immunosuppressant drugs.
However, there had been a three-month period in 2011 when the ill-fated piper had experienced a respite from his symptoms while visiting Australia. Having left his bagpipes back home in the UK, he suddenly recovered much of his lung capacity, and was able to walk for miles along the beach without needing to stop. Yet once he returned to Britain and became reunited with his beloved bagpipes, his symptoms returned.
Scientists then decided to inspect his instrument, discovering colonies of various species of fungi in the neck and the bag. After the man’s death, post-mortem analysis revealed extensive scarring of the lungs, which doctors believe were caused by repeatedly inhaling these fungi.
In response to this incident, the study authors advise all wind instrument players to clean their apparatus regularly and allow them to drip dry, as any moisture remaining inside these instruments could provide an ideal environment for yeasts, molds, and fungi to flourish.