Death by bagpipes: scientists warn of illness caused by pipes

Scotlands national instrument has hidden dangers. Picture: PA
Scotlands national instrument has hidden dangers. Picture: PA
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Playing the bagpipes could put your life at risk – by breathing in mould spores lurking inside the instruments.

The wind instrument can harbour a host of fungi and mould inside its moist interiors that can cause “bagpipe lung.”

Blowing in warm moist air creates the ideal breeding ground for the mould and the spores are then inhaled back by the player.

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The warning came after a bagpipe player died of the chronic inflammatory lung condition hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP).

This condition happens when your lungs have an allergic reaction to something you have inhaled.

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One example is farmer’s lung, which is caused by breathing mould that grows on hay, straw and grain.

Another is bird fancier’s lung, which is caused by breathing in particles from feathers or bird droppings. Inhaling certain chemicals can be another cause.

Bagpipe, trombone and saxophone players can be affected too, the study in the BMJ’s Thorax found. The findings came after a 61-year-old man was referred to a specialist lung clinic in 2014 after seven years of a dry cough and progressive breathlessness, despite treatment with immunosuppressant drugs. His condition had worsened to the point that he couldn’t walk more than 20 metres, and was finding it hard to breathe, prompting admission to hospital.

He had been diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in 2009, although the cause had not been identified as he was not a pigeon fancier, lived in adamp house or smoked. But he played the bagpipe daily but did not take them with him on a three-month trip to Australia and his symptoms rapidly improved. So scientists took samples from inside the bagpipes, including the bag, the neck, and the chanter reed protector. But despite treatment he died and a post-mortem found extensive lung damage consistent with acute respiratory distress syndrome and tissue fibrosis (scarring).

Dr Jenny King, of University Hospital of South Manchester, said: “This is the first case report identifying fungal exposure, from a bagpipe player, as a potential trigger for the development of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. The clinical history of daily bagpipe playing, coupled with marked symptomatic improvement when this exposure was removed, and the identification of multiple potential precipitating antigens isolated from the bagpipes, make this the likely cause.

“There have been previous case reports of HP in saxophone and trombone players attributable to isolated fungi and Candida.”