Pulmonary fibrosis is a disease characterized by lung scarring that irreversibly damages healthy lung tissue over time, making them stiff and stripping them of their elasticity.
This makes it harder to breathe because oxygen cannot enter your bloodstream as easily, resulting in feeling short of breath even when simply going for a walk. Lungs affected by pulmonary fibrosis get smaller and their capacity to hold air is reduced.
Multiple factors may contribute to the cause of developing pulmonary fibrosis, but sometimes it is difficult for physicians to determine what exactly is causing the disease to progress.
What Causes Pulmonary Fibrosis?
Around 50,000 new patients are diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis every year and begin showing symptoms when they are 50-70 years old, although it can happen to patients of any age. A few causes of this lung disease are:
· Certain heart medications like amiodarone, drugs used in chemotherapy, and antibiotics like nitrofurantoin can negatively impact the lungs
· Occupational hazards such as the inhalation of asbestos, fumes, dust, and fibers
· Environmental exposure to mold or animal droppings
· Radiation treatments localized to the chest
· Autoimmune illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, abnormal blood tests, and inflammation of the joints
· Genetics that suggest there is history of pulmonary fibrosis present in your family
· Smoking is a big risk factor
What are the Symptoms of Pulmonary Fibrosis?
There is no particular set of symptoms you might experience once you are diagnosed. This is because symptoms vary among everyone with pulmonary fibrosis, as everyone encounters different symptoms and manifestations of their condition.
Patients could either be faced with severe symptoms or mild ones without little to no decline in their overall health for years to come. Symptoms may be virtually nonexistent for a long time and suddenly flare up unexpectedly. Pulmonary fibrosis is a highly unpredictable disease, see your provider if any of the below continue for any length of time.
· Consistent dry cough
· Shortness of breath or shallow breathing
· Gradual and unplanned weight loss
· Pain in the muscles and joints due to clubbing (when the fingers and toes start to round and widen)
How is Pulmonary Fibrosis Diagnosed?
In order to properly diagnose someone with pulmonary fibrosis, a physician will first take a close listen to your breathing patterns. If abnormalities are detected, further tests might be advised by the doctor to narrow down what is causing it. The physician might perform a Pulmonary Function Test that requires the patient to breathe forcefully through a tube. This test measures how much air your lungs can actually hold.
You might need to take an oximetry test to determine what your blood oxygen levels are. Scar tissue may be obstructing the flow of oxygen to your bloodstream, causing you to feel breathless when you exert yourself. A small device will be placed on your finger to track the oxygen saturation levels in your blood.
A chest X-ray might also be required to see the full extent of scar tissue that has accumulated on the lungs. These HRCT scans provide you with a closer view of the lungs than a regular CT scan will. There are times when a doctor might need to take a tissue sample from the patient’s lungs to more accurately determine the presence of pulmonary fibrosis.
How is Pulmonary Fibrosis Treated?
Currently, the advancement of pulmonary fibrosis cannot be cured once it begins to progress. There are treatments available that may slow the scarring process or help manage symptoms. The healthcare provider may choose to place a patient with PF on certain medications that will provide some relief, and many will suggest other practices like pulmonary rehabilitation or supplemental oxygen therapy.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is designed to help those diagnosed with PF strengthen their breathing muscles and improve their overall well-being through exercise. Depending on which program you are prescribed by your physician, you might also learn how to manage stress, anxiety, and learn a lot about your condition.
Supplemental oxygen therapy is provided by a device the patient wears while breathing through a mask or nasal cannula. A healthcare provider might recommend using supplemental oxygen only during sleep, during active periods of your day, or to be worn consistently. This is to ensure your blood gets the vital oxygen it needs to function and help you breathe easier.
Supplemental oxygen has the ability to significantly improve life expectancy and the quality of life of not only patients with pulmonary fibrosis, but of anyone with a lung disease.