by Kimberly Allen, RN
Farming is one of the oldest and largest industries that continues in the US. There are big farms and small farms and those that work those farms usually spend alot of time outdoors and are physically active. So why is it that over 30% of the adults in the US that are disabled by respiratory illness are farmers? The majority of farmers are non-smokers, so if smoking isn’t causing their disability what is? It’s called Farmer’s Lung.
Farmer’s are exposed to numerous hazards everyday, but Farmer’s Lung is one of the most serious of those hazards, and the incidence of Farmer’s Lung has been increasing over the past few years. So what is Farmer’s Lung? Farmers Lung is an allergic disease. It’s not infectious or contagious. The medical term for Farmer’s Lung is “extrinsic allergic alveolitis.” It has also been called “hypersensitivity pneumonitis.”
Farmer’s Lung is almost always caused by inhaling dust from moldy crops like hay, straw, grain. corn, silage and even tobacco. The dust from moldy crops contains spores of heat-tolerating bacteria or molds. These spores are from two types of heat tolerant bacterium called Micropolysore faeni and Thermoactinomyces vulgaris as well as from certain molds known as Aspergillus are responsible for the majority of Farmer’s Lung cases. These spores accumulate in your lower lungs and produce toxins that enter your bloodstream with the oxygen causing your body to react to the toxins. In a recent study exposure to organochlorines and carbamate pesticides was also shown to cause Farmer’s Lung.
As with most allergic reactions Farmer’s Lung also develops in two stages. The first time you inhale a large quantity of the dust and spores your immune system reacts by producing specific antibodies against the antigens in the dust. Those antibodies then circulate through your bloodstream attacking the antigens. However, once your immune system has produced these antibodies continued exposure to the dust antigens can produce a hyper sensitivity reaction or allergic reaction. That reaction is Farmer’s Lung. Long term exposure to the dust from moldy crops can cause permanent damage to your lungs leading to physical disability and even death.
The symptoms of Farmer’s Lung depends on the amount of dust and spores you have been exposed to as well as the force of your body’s reaction to the dust and spores. As you are exposed over time your sensitivity is likely to increase and your reaction will become more severe with less exposure. The symptoms of Farmer’s Lung are usually the most severe during the first 12 to 48 hours after being exposed to the dust and spores but can last up to two weeks. The symptoms of Farmer’s Lung can develop slowly over time as the disease progresses or in a sudden attack. Shortness of breath is the hallmark symptom of Farmer’s Lung along with a general feeling of malaise. Most people also have a dry cough with a fever and chills. Many also complain of aches and pains in their joints and muscles as well as a loss of appetite and weight loss.
Treatment of Farmer’s Lung begins by avoiding exposure to the dust and spores. In some cases the doctor may also recommend bedrest and oxygen therapy to improve your shortness of breath and oxygen levels in your bloodstream. Unfortunately there is no cure for Farmer’s Lung and though there are some medications available that can relieve symptoms during an acute attack these medications are not recommended for long term use.
The best way to prevent Farmer’s Lung is to identify and minimize the contaminants in your work environment. Wear masks and/or respirators as well as other protective gear. Be sure dusty areas are well ventilated and avoid doing dusty work in confined areas. Use fan’s, and filters or exhaust blowers to remove any contaminants in the air and work outdoors whenever possible.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.