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Pulmonary Fibrosis

When you have pulmonary fibrosis, your lungs become thickened and scarred. The scarring can keep the lungs from working as well as they should. You may find it harder to take deep breaths. Other symptoms may include a dry cough or mild chest pain.

Cross section of airway and alveoli with arrows showing oxygen flowing in and carbon dioxide flowing out. Blood vessels surround alveoli.
Normal lung

Cross section of airway and alveoli with scarring (pulmonary fibrosis). Arrows show little oxygen flowing in and carbon dioxide flowing out. Blood vessels surround alveoli.
Lung with pulmonary fibrosis

The Lungs’ Important Job

The main job of the lungs is to get oxygen to your blood. When you breathe in, you inhale air rich in oxygen. When you breathe out, you exhale carbon dioxide. This is a waste gas your body doesn’t need. Oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged in tiny sacs in the lungs. These are called the alveoli. Oxygen moves from the air in the alveoli to blood vessels around the alveoli. The blood vessels then carry oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. Carbon dioxide also moves from the blood vessels to the air in the alveoli, and is exhaled.

When Lungs Are Damaged

Pulmonary fibrosis is scarring of the lung tissue between the alveoli and the blood vessels. If scarring is severe, oxygen can’t easily move from the air in the alveoli to the blood in the vessels. As a result, the blood doesn’t deliver enough oxygen to the body.

Causes of Pulmonary Fibrosis

In many cases, pulmonary fibrosis is idiopathic (has no known cause). Known causes of pulmonary fibrosis include:

  • Exposure to dust from asbestos or silica, gases, fumes, or poisons at work or at home

  • Chemicals and drugs (chemotherapy or some medications)

  • Radiation therapy

  • Lung infections

  • Connective tissue disease (such as scleroderma, systemic lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis)

  • Sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease causing inflammation of body organs, often the lungs

Treating Pulmonary Fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis can’t be cured. But the disease often progresses very slowly. Treatment can help control the disease and improve symptoms. Your treatment team will discuss possible treatments with you. These can include:

  • Medications. These can help reduce inflammation in the lungs, suppress the body’s immune system, and help lessen scarring.

  • Supplemental oxygen. This can help increase the amount of oxygen that gets to the blood. Some people will need to use oxygen all the time. Others will only need it when they sleep or exercise.

  • Breathing techniques. These can help you cope with shortness of breath.

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a program of exercise and education that can help you gain strength and independence.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 1/15/2007
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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