Doctors are warning that patients reporting unexplained breathlessness this winter may be suffering from a condition triggered by feather duvets.
A report published in the British Medical Journal detailed a case of ‘feather lung” - a lung inflammation caused by breathing in dust from feather bedding.
Feather lung - a form of hypersensitivity pneumonitis - is caused by an immune response and includes symptoms like shortness of breath, night sweats and a dry cough.
While doctors diagnosing the condition usually ask sufferers if they have birds at home, the article's authors are encouraging other healthcare professionals to dig into their patients' bedding set ups, advising that many cases of feather lung may go unnoticed or be misdiagnosed.
“I suspect it is the tip of an iceberg,” said Dr Owen Dempsey, co-author of the report and a consultant chest physician at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
“I think there are lots of exposures out there that we are not aware of, and just because we are not aware of them they get ignored.”
The case that brought the condition to light - and features in the BMJ report - is that of an anonymous 43-year-old non-smoking man who experienced three months of unexplained breathlessness and fatigue.
Initially the patient was diagnosed with a lower respiratory tract infection but after treatment, his symptoms worsened.
“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,” the patient recounted in the report.
“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.”
After questioning the patient further, following an x-ray that provided no clues to his problem, Dr Dempsey learned he had recently switched to feather bedding.
Tests revealed the patient had high antibodies towards bird proteins and revealed a pattern in his lungs that suggested hypersensitivity.
After removing the bedding and a course of steroids, the patient recovered completely within six months.
“There are several hundred different types of hypersensitivity pneumonitis,” added Dempsey.
“For medical professionals it is really important to be nosy and take a meticulous history and ask people about exposures because there are lots of things people do that we don’t always appreciate when we are sitting in a clinic or surgery.”