Pulmonary Fibrosis Often Goes Undiagnosed Due to Symptoms

Health Minute

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A cough that has dragged on for up to a year or the inability to breathe easily upon exertion may be a sign of a serious lung issue that often goes undiagnosed.

“Typically patients present with shortness of breath and very often they think it is because they are getting older,” says Amaresh Nath, MD, a pulmonologist with Middletown Pulmonary and Critical Care. “They may also have a cough that is dry and doesn’t respond to treatment. Unfortunately, the diagnosis is made in the later stages because these symptoms are so non-specific.”At any given time, there are about 140,000 Americans walking around with pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable disease that robs someone of their ability to take in adequate amounts of oxygen. However, a local pulmonologist says the actual number of people who have the disease may be higher because its symptoms can be blamed on other causes.

Scar Tissue in Lungs Causes Condition

Pulmonary fibrosis is a progressive lung disease with no cure. Treatment that does exist only helps aid a person in the amount of oxygen they absorb. There are several diseases that produce fibrosis in the lungs that have a fair prognosis, but the type that is most common – called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) –does not normally offer a good outcome. In fact, only 20 to 30 percent of patients are still alive five years after their diagnosis, says Dr. Nath, who practices with Premier Physician Network.

It is not completely understood what triggers pulmonary fibrosis. However, the disease is caused by the continual creation of scar tissue within the lungs. The body normally creates scar tissue as a reaction to sustained injury, but in this case, that initial injury is unknown. The lung normally has a consistency of a flexible balloon, but the buildup of scar tissue causes it to become very stiff and difficult to compress, Dr. Nath says.

“This makes it harder for the patient to breathe and as more scar tissue is laid down the act of picking up oxygen becomes less efficient,” he says. “The result of the disease is not only difficulty breathing, but also the risk of developing pulmonary hypertension – or high pressure in the right side of the heart. Those who suffer from this disease also run the risk of blood clots. So, there are many, many issues that can arise from fibrosis or associated with pulmonary disease.”

Catching the Disease Early

Individuals can ensure a better prognosis for themselves by catching the disease early. Knowing the symptoms and an individual’s risks for the disease play a big role. Patients having a hard time breathing upon exertion and experiencing a cough for more than six months should consult with a doctor. Initial treatment may be oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation and medication, some of which are new to the market, Dr. Nath says.

According to the American Lung Association, there are certain things that can place a person at a higher risk for developing pulmonary fibrosis:

Smoking – Cigarette smoking by nature injures a person’s lungs creating the potential of scar tissue development.

Medical Issues – The use of medication as well as the presence of certain viruses have been attributed to the disease.

Environmental Exposure – Exposure to environmental pollutants such as silica, hard metal dusts, bacteria and animal proteins play a role.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease/Heartburn(GERD) – GERD is a condition in which acid from a person’s stomach backs up into their throat. Those who have GERD may breathe in tiny drops of acid from their stomachs, which may injure the lungs.

Genetics – Pulmonary fibrosis most commonly occurs in the fifth and sixth decade of a person’s life and more often in men than women. There is also a hereditary component. There have been families where more than one member has contracted the disease, Dr. Nath says.

For more information on pulmonary fibrosis or to find a Premier Health Specialist healthcare provider near you, visit premierhealthspecialists.com/pulmonology.

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