Pulmonary Fibrosis: A Serious, Sometimes Unheard of Lung Disease

Currently, when people experience shortness of breath and/or a cough, they may think of COVID-19. However, if those symptoms are chronic, it could be a warning sign of another condition: pulmonary fibrosis (PF).

PF is a debilitating lung disease that remains largely unknown, yet 50,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, and more than 200,000 Americans are living with the disease. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation (PFF), 86% of Americans are unaware of its symptoms.

Pulmonary Fibrosis: What You Need to Know

PF causes scarring in the lungs that, over time, will damage the normal lung and make it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. In the current climate of COVID-19, it is important to note that while ‘fibrosis of the lung,’ or lung scarring, can be a consequence of COVID-19, it is not the same as PF. For COVID-19 patients who have severe respiratory failure and require mechanical ventilation, fibrosis may occur as a result of the devastating lung injury.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and other fibrosing interstitial lung diseases that cause PF, however, are often progressive, meaning that the scarring on the lungs gets continually worse over time. Currently, there is no evidence that indicates the scarring in the lungs experienced by COVID-19 patients is progressive. Additional information is needed to better understand the long-term impact of COVID-19-associated lung injury and fibrosis. While scarring on the lungs in COVID-19 is very serious, it is different than other conditions that cause progressive pulmonary fibrosis.

PF and COVID-19: Similar Symptoms, Different Diagnoses

While COVID-19 and PF share symptoms of shortness of breath and cough, patients with COVID-19 who develop shortness of breath usually experience acute onset and progression of this symptom over days and weeks, along with fever. COVID-19 may also cause symptoms such as chills, muscle pain, sore throat and loss of taste or smell.

PF symptoms are chronic with these other warning signs to be aware of:

  • A dry, hacking cough that lasts more than two months
  • Fatigue, weakness, discomfort in the chest, loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss
  • Doctors may also look for low oxygen levels in the blood, as well as listen for “crackles” in the lungs, much like the sound of Velcro being pulled apart

Because many symptoms of PF are similar to those of other illnesses, it can be difficult to diagnose and treat, leading to frequent late-stage diagnoses. Symptoms of PF may appear mild in the early stages; therefore, it is imperative to recognize the signs of the disease so patients can start conversations with their physicians.

“Awareness of pulmonary fibrosis and its symptoms remains very low, and, for many, the first time they hear of the disease is when they are diagnosed,” said William Schmidt, president and CEO of the PFF.

At-risk Populations Still Unaware of PF

While anyone can develop PF, it is more likely to occur in those ages 60 and older, current or past smokers, or people with a family history of interstitial lung disease. However, those most at risk are alarmingly unaware of PF symptoms, including the 60+ age group (91%) and those with a history of smoking (81%), according to the PFF. These individuals are at risk for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the most common form of the disease.

“Understanding pulmonary fibrosis, its symptoms and risk factors is critical, so that we can engage people nationwide in fighting this serious lung disease,” concluded Schmidt. “Raising awareness of the disease can help drive earlier diagnoses and encourage support for needed research, which can ultimately lead to a cure.”

For more information about pulmonary fibrosis, visit www.AboutPF.org. To access the PFF Awareness Survey, visit https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/our-role/news-media/media-resources.