And, while the results of the breathing tests were within normal ranges, they were worse than seen in other soldiers, the researchers found.
"The evidence that an inhalational exposure is the likely underlying cause of these problems is mounting, and we owe it to our military to launch further investigations so that we may improve prevention, detection, and treatment of these deployment-related respiratory diseases," King said.
Dr. Michael Light, a professor of pulmonary medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that "pulmonary abnormalities probably are real after exposure to whatever it might be, from Middle Eastern deployments."
However, whether the people who live in these areas have similar problems isn't known, Light said. "They're exposed to the same things," he said. "We don't know if they get this problem."
The theory is this is caused by the inhalation of a toxic substance in people who have not been exposed to it before, Light said. However, he noted that the damage seems to be minor. These same problems were seen during the first Gulf War, he added.
Whether the problem is permanent isn't clear, Light said. "There are treatments," he added. These include steroids and Zithromax, an antibiotic used to treat bronchitis and pneumonia.
"This is a wake-up call that there may be ways that can reduce the impact of these exposures," Light said.
For more on lung diseases, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: Matthew S. King, M.D., assistant professor, pulmonary and critical care, Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tenn.; Michael Light, M.D., professor, pulmonary medicine, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; July 21, 2011, New England Journal of Medicine
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