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Interstitial Lung Disease

Interstitial lung disease—sometimes called restrictive lung disease—refers to a group of lung problems. When you have interstitial lung disease, your lungs become inflamed and scarred. You may find it harder to take deep breaths. Or you may have a dry cough and mild chest discomfort.

Interstitial lung disease is not asthma, although symptoms like shortness of breath may feel similar.

Inside Your Lungs

When you breathe, air travels in and out of your lungs through branching airways (bronchioles). Oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are exchanged in the alveoli. Oxygen passes from the alveoli to the blood vessels through the tissue called interstitium. The blood vessels then carry oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. Carbon dioxide moves back from the blood vessels to the alveoli and is then exhaled.

Outline of human head and chest showing lungs and diaphragm. Diaphragm is muscle below lungs. It flattens to draw air in as you inhale, then rises as you exhale. Cross section of bronchiole and alveoli. Bronchiole is smallest airway. Alveoli are air sacs at end of bronchioles. Blood vessels surround alveoli. Closeup of interstitium between alveoli and blood vessel showing oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. Cross section of damaged alveoli supplying less oxygen to body. Closeup of scarred interstitium not able to exchange enough oxygen and carbon dioxide.

How Lungs Become Damaged

Interstitial lung disease develops in steps:

  • First, the alveoli are injured and the lungs become inflamed.

  • Then scarring of the lungs develops. The lungs may become stiff.

  • With enough damage from scarring, oxygen can’t easily move through interstitium.

Causes of Interstitial Lung Disease

In most cases, interstitial lung disease has no known cause. Some known causes include:

  • Dust from asbestos or silica, gases, fumes, or poisons

  • Chemicals and drugs (chemotherapy or medications)

  • Radiation therapy

  • Lung infections

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

Treatment for Interstitial Lung Disease

Interstitial lung disease can’t be cured, but treatment can help you feel better. Treatment may include medication, breathing techniques, exercise, and stress management. In some cases, a lung transplant is an option. Your healthcare team may include:

  • A primary care provider, such as your family doctor.

  • A pulmonologist, a specialist in lung problems.

  • A pulmonary nurse specialist who helps you understand and carry out your treatment.

  • A pulmonary rehabilitation specialist who helps you gain strength through exercise.

  • A social worker who helps with your daily needs, family life, and stress.


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