How to Diagnose Farmer's Lung
Farmer’s lung is an allergic disease caused by breathing in dust and particles from moldy crops. Farmer’s lung, otherwise known as extrinsic allergic alveolitis, causes an inflammation of the alveoli within the lungs that causes an irritating cough, difficulty breathing, and other complications. Only a doctor can truly diagnose farmer’s lung, but if you or someone you know works regularly with dusty crops or animal feathers, hair, or fur, or otherwise has regular exposure to agricultural chemicals, you may want to watch out for signs of farmer’s lung and related complications. While there is no specific cure or treatment for farmer’s lung, there are things you can do manage your symptoms.
Identifying Farmer’s Lung Symptoms
Evaluate your level of exposure.Farmer’s lung most often occurs in those exposed to mold spores that grow in hay, grain, and other crops, but can also impact those who work around farm animals, those who work in moldy and dusty buildings, and those that apply chemicals, paints, or solvents in an agricultural environment. Consider whether you regularly work with:
- Hay, corn, wheat, or other grains
- Silage or silos where silage is stored
- Farm animals with feathers, hair, or fur
- Fish meal
- Agricultural chemicals
- Crop fields
Monitor for symptoms of sub-acute farmer's lung.Sub-acute farmer’s lung is more common than acute attacks, but is less intense and subsequently more difficult to recognize. Sub-acute farmer’s lung develops after continual exposure to small amounts of molding dust, with symptoms including:
- Chills and a mild fever
- Shortness of breath
- Aching muscles and joint pain
- Loss of appetite and potential weight loss
Check for acute farmer’s lung.Acute farmer’s lung occurs in about one out of every three farmer’s lung cases. The attack is generally intense and starts four to eight hours after an individual breathes in a large amount of moldy dust. Common symptoms of an acute attack include:
- Shortness of breath
- An irritated, dry cough
- A sudden feeling of sickness
- Rapid onset fever and chills
- Rapid breathing
- Rapid heart rate
Watch for repeated attacks.Repeated acute attacks over a period of years can lead to chronic farmer’s lung. The chronic condition can last for months, leading to increased shortness of breath, frequent mild fevers, lethargy, and significant weight loss. It may also cause permanent lung damage that could permanently force you to distance yourself from the conditions causing the attack. If you or someone you know has had repeated farmer’s lung complications, seek medical attention immediately.
Seeking a Medical Diagnosis
Make an appointment with your doctor.Ultimately, a medical professional is the only one who can give a proper farmer’s lung diagnosis. Start by making an appointment with your family physician or general practitioner as soon as you notice symptoms.
- Let your doctor know what symptoms you’re experiencing, what type of exposure you think you may have had, and that you are concerned about farmer’s lung in particular. Otherwise they may consider your symptoms to be the result of another condition such as the flu or asthma.
- If you or someone you know is having an acute attack that is causing a high fever or severe problems breathing, seek immediate medical help from an emergency room or urgent care facility.
Schedule any necessary testing.There is no one specific test to diagnose farmer’s lung. Depending upon your symptoms and your doctor’s request, you may have to submit to a blood test, a CT scan, a lung function test, an inhalation challenge test, a bronchoalveolar lavage test, or in extreme cases even an open lung biopsy.
- Your doctor may be able to prepare or conduct some tests, such as a blood test or an inhalation challenge test, in the office during your appointment. Other tests may require you to come back at a later date or see a specialist.
- Be sure to follow through with any requested tests as quickly as possible. This allows your doctor to more accurately diagnose your condition and recommend proper treatment faster.
Seek immediate attention for emergency symptoms.Farmer’s lung can cause breathing obstructions. If you or someone you know experiences an acute or chronic farmer’s lung attack during which they are having difficulty breathing on their own, seek immediate medical attention. Do not wait for a doctor’s appointment. Instead, head immediately for an urgent care facility.
- Let the doctor or attending nurse know upon arrival that the person experiencing the attack works in an agricultural environment and may have been exposed to moldy dust or other spores.
Treating Farmer’s Lung
Take medication as prescribed.A medical professional may prescribe a corticosteroid to help improve lung function following a farmer’s lung episode. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist regarding dosage and frequency of treatment, and take the medication as instructed for the full duration of treatment.
Avoid mold contact.The only true preventative treatment for farmer’s lung is to avoid exposure to the moldy conditions that caused the attack. Depending upon the nature of the attack, your doctor may recommend complete abstinence from the environment for a given period of time. After that, you may need to take additional precautions to prevent a future attack, including:
- Ensuring crops are fully dry prior to storage
- Providing as much ventilation as possible in enclosed or dusty areas
- Avoiding dusty work in enclosed or confined spaces
- Mechanizing operations such as feeding when possible
- Wearing a respirator when applying any agricultural chemicals or working with solvents
- Having heating, air, and ventilation systems checked for mold in enclosed environments
Wear protective gear as necessary.When working in dusty or moldy environments, wear protective gear whenever necessary, including face masks or a respirator. Ask your employer to provide you with proper safety equipment as required by law in your area.
Use mold inhibitors as allowed.Use mold inhibitors whenever possible to prevent dust from growing moldy. If this is not possible, consider wetting down grain or feed before moving or transferring it to prevent dust from kicking up. Remember to properly dry the grain after wetting it.
Video: Mould and Farmer's Lung
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