Your lungs are one of your most important organs in your body. Without healthy lungs, the rest of your organs may struggle to get the oxygen they need to function well.
Your lungs oxygenate blood, which then circulates throughout the body to nourish the different organs and tissues in your body with life-sustaining oxygen. The lungs have a sponge-like tissue, which allows them to expand and contract freely to help you breathe.
However, if you have an interstitial lung disease, your lung tissue may become scarred. This is called fibrosis, and it causes the lung tissue to stiffen. As a result, breathing may become labored, and the rest of your body may not get the oxygen it needs.
Interstitial lung disease, or ILD, is not one single disease: It’s a category of diseases linked to lung scarring. Over time, this scarring can progress and cause irreversible lung damage.
A wide range of factors can lead to lung scarring and ILD. Scarring may be related to exposure to hazards like coal dust, saw dust, or asbestos. It may be associated with connective tissue diseases, inflammatory diseases, or sarcoidosis. It may even be of unknown cause, known as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
Symptoms of ILD may vary based on the exact disease, but since they are all united by lung scarring, the most common symptom is shortness of breath. The scarring both stiffens the lung tissue and blunts the lung function.
Other symptoms of ILD include a dry cough, chest pain or discomfort, and fatigue. In some cases, you may experience unintentional weight loss. Unfortunately, the presence of these symptoms means that lung scarring has already occurred.
ILD does not have a cure. Without treatment, the scarring may progress and increasingly affect overall health and quality of life. The good news: Treatment may help put the disease course in slow motion, reduce symptoms, and help make breathing easier.
In other words, if you’re experiencing shortness of breath, don’t wait to see a doctor. They can help unlock the lung mystery, and if necessary, help you get started on treatment.
Cottin V, Hirani NA, Hotchkin DL, Nambiar AM, Ogura T, Otaola M, et al. Presentation, diagnosis and clinical course of the spectrum of progressive-fibrosing interstitial lung diseases. European Respiratory Review. 2018;27(150).