Interstitial lung disease (ILD) is an umbrella term used for a large group of diseases that cause scarring (fibrosis) of the lungs. The scarring causes stiffness in the lungs which makes it difficult to breathe and get oxygen to the bloodstream. Lung damage from ILDs is often irreversible and gets worse over time.
Anyone can get interstitial lung disease, including children. Many things can increase the risk of or cause ILDs including genetics, certain medications or medical treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy. Exposure to hazardous materials has been linked to ILDs such as asbestosis and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. People with autoimmune diseases such as sarcoidosis or rheumatoid arthritis are also at increased risk of developing an ILD. Smoking can not only cause ILDs, but can make the condition much worse, which is why anyone diagnosed is strongly encouraged to quit. Unfortunately, in many cases, such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the causes may be unknown.
The most common symptom of all ILDs is shortness of breath. This is often accompanied by a dry cough, chest discomfort, fatigue and occasionally weight loss. In most cases, by the time the symptoms appear lung damage has already been done so it is important to see your doctor immediately. Severe cases that are left untreated can develop life-threatening complications including high blood pressure, heart or respiratory failure.
To diagnose an ILD, your doctor will probably order a chest X-ray or CT scan to get a better look at your lungs. A lung function test may be used to measure your total lung capacity, which may have deteriorated due to the ILD. In more serious cases, and to diagnose a specific type of ILD, more invasive procedures may be needed, such as a bronchoscopy or a lung biopsy.
Treatment for ILDs varies depending on the type of ILD diagnosed and the severity. Lung damage from ILDs is often irreversible and progressive, so treatment normally centers on relieving symptoms, improving quality of life and slowing the disease's progression. Medications, such as corticosteroids, can be used to decrease inflammation in the lungs. Oxygen therapy is another common treatment because it helps deliver extra oxygen to make breathing easier and lessen complications from low blood oxygen levels, such as heart failure. Pulmonary rehabilitation may also be recommended to improve daily life by giving patients techniques to improve lung efficiency, improve physical endurance and offer emotional support. In the most extreme cases, people with ILDs will be recommended for lung transplants.
For more information about the best form of treatment for you, talk to your doctor.