Introduction: Inhalational exposure to metal-containing fumes generated by welding and related processes may result in the development of the clinical syndrome known as "metal fume fever." Polymer fume fever is a separate and distinct but related disorder that has been associated with inhalational exposure to specific fluorinated polymer products, such as polytetrafluoroethylene or Teflon(®). We undertook a review of the peer-reviewed medical literature as it relates to these two disease entities in order to describe their epidemiology, pathophysiology, clinical presentation, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and prognosis.
Methodology: We performed a search of the PubMed ( www.pubmed.com ) and Ovid MEDLINE (ovidsp.tx.ovid.com) databases for keywords "metal fume fever," "polymer fume fever," and "fume fever," covering the period 1946 to September 2014, which resulted in a total of 141 citations. Limiting the search to articles published in the English language yielded 115 citations. These 115 articles were manually reviewed for relevance. In addition, the reference lists in each article retrieved were reviewed for additional relevant references. This left 48 relevant citations.
Epidemiology: Metal fume fever occurs most commonly as an occupational disease in individuals who perform welding and other metal-joining activities for a living. It is estimated that 1,500-2,500 cases of metal fume fever occur annually in the United States. Polymer fume fever was initially identified as an occupational disease but increased regulations have resulted in decreased incidence in the occupational setting. Overheating of Teflon(®)-coated cookware is one of the more common mechanisms for exposure.
Pathophysiology: While the precise pathophysiology associated with the development of metal fume fever is yet to be elucidated, suggested pathophysiologic mechanisms include pro-inflammatory cytokine release, neutrophil activation, and oxygen radical formation. The pathophysiologic mechanism for polymer fume fever has not been definitively elucidated but may involve similar mechanisms to those proposed for metal fume fever.
Clinical presentation: Metal fume fever typically presents with generally non-specific complaints including influenza-like symptoms, fever, shaking chills, arthalgias, myalgias, headache, and malaise. Onset of symptoms typically occurs 4-10 h following the exposure to metal-containing fumes. While metal fume fever is typically benign and self-limited, severe cases of the disease have been reported. In patients with ongoing metal fume exposure over the course of a workweek, tachyphylaxis occurs resulting in improvement in symptoms over the course of the workweek and maximal symptoms occurring after an exposure-free period such as a weekend. The clinical presentation of polymer fume fever is indistinguishable from metal fume fever, with an exposure history being necessary to distinguish the two entities.
Diagnosis: Chest radiographs are typically normal in cases of metal fume fever and polymer fume fever; however, mild vascular congestion may be demonstrated and severe cases may feature diffuse patchy infiltrates. Laboratory studies are typically not necessary but may demonstrate leukocytosis with leftward shift or an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate.
Treatment: The primary treatment for both metal fume fever and polymer fume fever is supportive and directed at symptom relief. Oral hydration, rest, and the use of antipyretics and anti-inflammatory medications (e.g., non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and aspirin) are recommended. A careful workplace exposure assessment analysis conducted by an occupational medicine specialist or clinical toxicologist in concert with a qualified industrial hygienist should be performed.
Prevention: A careful workplace exposure assessment including measurement of ambient zinc and other metal (e.g., chrome, nickel, copper and manganese) fume concentrations or concentrations of fluorocarbon polymer decomposition products at different locations within the workplace should be performed.
Prognosis: Metal fume fever is typically a benign and self-limited disease entity that resolves over 12-48 h following cessation of exposure.
Conclusions: Metal and polymer fume fevers generally follow a benign course with spontaneous resolution of symptoms, though both have the potential to be serious, especially in those with significant preexisting cardiorespiratory disease.
Keywords: Inhalation; Lung; Welding.