Clean inside those bagpipes — and trumpets and clarinets

Dangerous yeasts and molds can flourish in wind instruments


CLEAN THOSE PIPES  Inside the dark, moist interior of bagpipes, fungi can grow and potentially infect the lungs of people who play.


Scott Clark/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Bagpipe lung
BAGpīp ləng n.

An inflammatory lung disease caused by regular inhalation of fungi living inside bagpipes.

In 2014, a 61-year-old man died after seven years of a mysterious illness that left him breathless, with a dry cough.

Doctors diagnosed him with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a rare disease caused by breathing in particles that irritate lung tissues. It’s also known as bird fancier’s lung, humidifier lung and hot tub lung, among other names. But the patient had no known exposure to birds, nor to household molds that can trigger the disorder.

BAD AIR Squeezing the bag of one patient’s bagpipes released an assortment of potentially harmful fungi that scientists grew on petri dishes. J. King et al/Thorax 2016

Two clues intrigued Jenny King, a physician at the University Hospital South Manchester in England: The patient played the bagpipes daily. And on a three-month trip to Australia, when he left his bagpipes at home, his symptoms disappeared.

King and colleagues found pink yeast, mold and plant fungi living in the instrument’s neck, the cap that fits over the reed and in air blown out of the bag. Inhaling the microbes every day could have sparked the patient’s disease, the team reported online August 22 in Thorax.

Bagpipe, trombone and saxophone players be warned: Musical instruments with moist interiors should be cleaned immediately after use, the authors suggest. 


Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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