Overview and Facts about Pulmonary Fibrosis
Pulmonary fibrosis is a disease that occurs when a patient’s lung tissue becomes thick and scarred, which causes it to stiffen. This makes the lungs work harder than normal and results in less oxygen in the blood. As the disease progresses, patients become short of breath and have difficulty completing strenuous activities.
Although the damage to the lung tissue caused by pulmonary fibrosis can’t be reversed, pulmonary and critical care teams can reduce symptoms with medication and therapies.
Signs and Symptoms of Pulmonary Fibrosis
Depending on the severity of the pulmonary fibrosis, symptoms of the pulmonary condition can include the following:
- Shortness of breath
- A dry cough
- Weight loss
- Muscle and joint aches
- Clubbing (widening and rounding) of the finger and toe tips
Sometimes these symptoms come on suddenly, or they develop slowly over months or even years.
Causes and Risk Factors of Pulmonary Fibrosis
Pulmonary fibrosis can result from multiple factors. The most common include:
- Long-term exposure to occupational and environmental factors like silica dust, asbestos, and coal dust among other toxins
- Radiation treatments for lung or breast cancer
- Certain medications, including chemotherapy drugs, medicines used to treat irregular heartbeats, antibiotics containing nitrofurantoin, and certain anti-inflammatory medications
- Specific medical conditions like dermatomyositis, polymyositis, connective tissue diseases, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and pneumonia
Although there are many underlying causes of pulmonary fibrosis, the root cause is often not possible to determine. It’s believed these idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis cases could be caused by viruses and tobacco smoke.
Risk factors for developing pulmonary fibrosis include:
- Having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Being a middle-aged woman
- Working in the mining, farming, or construction industries
- Having certain cancer treatments
Tests and Diagnosis of Pulmonary Fibrosis
To determine if a patient has pulmonary fibrosis, the doctor reviews their medical history and performs a physical examination, including listening to the lungs with a stethoscope. The doctor may ask questions about exposure to toxins and discuss the patient’s symptoms.
In addition, the doctor may request specific tests, including the following:
- Chest X-ray
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan
- Pulmonary function testing
- Pulse oximetry
- Exercise stress test
- Arterial blood gas test
The doctor may also recommend a blood test to evaluate liver and kidney function.
Treatment and Care for Pulmonary Fibrosis
Pulmonary fibrosis can’t be reversed, and no treatments have been shown to stop the disease from progressing. However, symptoms can be treated to improve the patient’s quality of life. Doctors may recommend medications; for example, if the patient has GERD, an antacid medication may be prescribed.
In addition, oxygen therapy is recommended. Oxygen therapy can make breathing and exercise easier and improve low blood oxygen levels. Oxygen therapy can also reduce blood pressure and improve the patient’s sleep.
The doctor may also recommend some level of pulmonary rehabilitation, which could include the following:
- Physical exercises
- Deep breathing techniques
- Nutritional counseling
- Emotional support
At the onset of end-stage pulmonary fibrosis, a lung transplant may be necessary.