Gasping for Air? Could Be Pulmonary Fibrosis

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There can be lots of reasons for feeling short of breath. One is a condition you may have never heard of — title=pulmonary fibrosis;healthinfo=Pulmonary Fibrosis (PF). When you have PF, the tissue in your lungs becomes scarred over time. It gets thick and stiff, making it hard to catch your breath.

Most people with PF develop the signs between age 50 and 70.

What Causes Pulmonary Fibrosis?

Pulmonary fibrosis is an interstitial lung disease. That means it can inflame and even scar your lungs. Often health care providers can’t determine why you have pulmonary fibrosis. When a cause can’t be determined, the disease is called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

The following can increase your risk of pulmonary fibrosis:

  • Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or certain viral infections 
  • Exposure to environmental pollution or irritants such as mold, animals, cigarette smoke or hazardous materials like asbestos 
  • Certain medicines or chemotherapy 
  • Genetics (If someone in your family has PF, talk with your doctor or a genetics counselor about your risk.) 
  • Radiation treatments

What Are the Symptoms?

Pulmonary fibrosis can be misdiagnosed because its symptoms are like those of other lung diseases. Most people with PF develop the signs between age 50 and 70.

Talk with your doctor if you’re troubled by any of these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during exercise
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  • Dry, hacking cough that doesn’t improve
  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Tiredness
  • Aching joints and muscles
  • Clubbing (widening and rounding) of the tips of fingers or toes

How Is PF Diagnosed?

Your doctor will start by giving you a thorough physical exam and will ask about your health history and current symptoms. If she hears a crackling sound when listening to your lungs, that could be a sign of PF. Other tests may include:

  • Imaging tests: Chest X-rays and CT scans let your doctor check your lungs for scarring. 
  • Lung function tests: There are several ways to tell how well your lungs are working. For example, a pulmonary function test measures your lung size and how your lungs move air in and out. Pulse oximetry uses a small device placed on your finger to measure the oxygen level in your blood. And an exercise stress test shows how your lungs perform while you’re on a treadmill or stationary bike. 
  • Tissue sample: If your doctor needs to look at lung cells under a microscope to make a diagnosis, you might have a bronchoscopy. This procedure uses a thin tube inserted down your throat or nose to collect cells or fluid from your lungs. If more testing is needed, your doctor may perform a biopsy by taking a small sample of lung tissue to examine under a microscope.

Your doctor may decide to run additional tests to see if you have other health conditions that can trigger PF.

What Are the Treatment Options?

Pulmonary fibrosis can be treated, but it cannot be cured. Treatment can help improve symptoms and improve your quality of life. If you are diagnosed with PF, talk with your doctor about how to best take care of yourself. She may recommend managing symptoms and side effects using: 

  • Medicines to reduce lung inflammation and lessen scarring
  • Supplemental oxygen to raise oxygen levels in your blood
  • Breathing techniques to help you cope with shortness of breath
  • Pulmonary rehab to help you gain strength and independence through exercise and education