It’s a respiratory condition that you may never have heard of. This condition is not especially common – about 200,000 cases per year – but once contracted, it can cause lasting lung damage unless treated. And while this condition does not specifically affect seniors more than younger people, knowing about it may explain why someone you love is suffering with unexplained and undiagnosed breathing problems. The cause may be as close as the bed, the birdcage, or the humidifier. But once the cause is identified, the prognosis for full recovery is good.
Unexplained Breathing Problems Left 43-Year-Old Man Unable to Function
We just discovered this article on the Forbes website written by contributor Bruce Lee. While we found the tone of the article just a bit irritating, treating a serious topic with a casual air we thought inappropriate, the subject matter caught our attention. The article describes a case from the medical publication BMJ Case Reports in which a 43-year-old man visited his physician after three months of feeling very tired and breathless. “His doctor initially thought that the man had a lower respiratory tract infection but…things didn’t get better afterwards,” says Lee. In fact, one month later, “the man returned with worsening breathlessness to the point where he couldn’t walk from one room to another without getting out of breath.”
As the patient told doctors, “Two months after the onset of the symptoms, I was unable to stand or walk for more than a few minutes at a time without feeling like I was going to pass out. Going upstairs to bed was a 30 minute activity as I could only manage two stairs at a time and then needed to sit and rest.” He was unable to work and spent much of his days and nights trying to sleep. “At first glance,” the Forbes article says, “the man didn’t have any obvious reasons to be so breathless. He wasn’t a smoker. His workplace didn’t expose him to anything unusual.” Nothing in his hobbies or outside activities was causing him to inhale toxic materials.
Doctors Eventually Diagnosed the Man with a Condition Called HP
Eventually, doctors narrowed the man’s symptoms down to a condition called HP – hypersensitivity pneumonitis. “HP is basically a severe allergic reaction in your lungs,” says Forbes. “It occurs when your lungs generate an immune reaction to some substance that you continue to breathe in over a period of time.” Common triggers include dust, mold, bird droppings – and, it turns out, feathers. This man had recently purchased a feather-filled bed cover called a duvet, along with down-filled pillows. When the cause of HP is down-filled bed coverings, there’s even a nickname for it: “feather duvet lung.” For those who keep caged birds, as many seniors do, the feathers on a bird can bring on “bird fancier’s lung.” But it’s really the same underlying condition, hypersensitivity pneumonitis.
In the case of the 43-year-old man, his doctor prescribed a regimen of steroids which calmed the inflammation in his lungs. (Of course, the duvet and pillows had to go, replaced with bedding that was hypoallergenic.) The improvement was dramatic: he felt noticeably better within 48 hours, and eventually his condition returned to normal. “Fortunately,” Lee writes, “doctors caught his condition early enough to reverse the inflammation. If HP continues unchecked for too long, lung scarring can result. Such damage, called pulmonary fibrosis, is permanent and irreversible.” This condition can be life threatening.
Could HP Affect Your Senior Loved One? It Might Be Worth Considering
As we said, the Forbes article did not specifically mention the effects of HP on older adults, but we couldn’t help thinking that there are some readers of the AgingOptions blog or listeners to our radio program who might be experiencing breathing problems that don’t seem to have an obvious cause – or else they have an aging loved one who is having unexplained trouble with respiration. Have they recently purchased new bedding filled with down or other types of feathers? Perhaps they have moved into a smaller living space such as a room in a retirement residence and now the birdcage is in the bedroom instead of the living room. Another culprit can be a humidifier: when not properly and thoroughly cleaned, humidifiers can send mold and other substances into the air that can irritate the lungs and cause hypersensitive pneumonitis.
Bottom line: if mysterious breathing problems are plaguing someone you love, you might want to start with some lifestyle questions to see if HP may be involved. (And yes, if you do an online search for “duvet lung,” “bird fancier’s lung,” or “humidifier lung,” you’ll find thousands of references proving that these conditions are very real – and that they’re all a form of HP.)
The Best Medical Advice, the Best Retirement Advice
Whatever the subject, the best advice comes from professionals with the right training, experience and perspective for the task at hand. For a senior’s medical needs, that means a board-certified geriatrician, the only medical practitioner fully schooled in the particular health care needs of older adults. In the area of retirement planning, it’s imperative that you find an adviser who will take all the vital aspects of your future planning into account, including financial, legal, medical, housing and family elements. Unless these all work in harmony, your retirement plan is in danger of collapsing. But when all the pieces fit together, the result is a retirement plan that becomes the blueprint that will allow you to build the retirement you’ve dreamed of.
Please accept Rajiv’s invitation and join him for a special free event where he will explain this pioneering approach to retirement planning. It’s called LifePlanning, and we are confident that, if you’ll invest just a few hours at a LifePlanning Seminar, you’ll never look at retirement planning the same way twice. What do you have to lose? You’ll find a complete calendar of upcoming LifePlanning Seminars here on the AgingOptions Live Events page, where you can also register online (or call us for assistance). We’ll look forward to seeing you – and meanwhile, “Age on!”
(originally reported at www.forbes.com)