What Is Inflammation of the Lungs?

Everything you need to know about pain in the chest

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Lung inflammation can cause wheezing, difficulty breathing, or chest pain and tightness. There are many causes of inflammation in the lungs, including infections and diseases like asthma or bronchitis.

The diagnosis of lung inflammation involves a multifaceted approach, incorporating a physical examination, imaging tests, pulmonary function tests, and more. Lung inflammation can be treated with medications and procedures to alleviate the symptoms and control the underlying disease.

If you find out that you have inflammation of your lungs, it's important that you avoid smoking and exposure to fumes because airborne toxins can trigger and exacerbate any type of lung inflammation.

Symptoms

The noticeable effects of lung inflammation can develop rapidly or slowly, depending on the extent of inflammation, the cause, and your overall health. If you have chronic inflammation, you might end up getting used to the situation and ignoring your symptoms, especially if they are mild and fairly steady.

With acute and rapidly worsening inflammation of the lungs, it's hard to ignore the effects, and you will probably know that something is wrong.

Symptoms of lung inflammation can include:

  • Feeling tired after physical activity
  • A general sense of fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Dry or productive cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest discomfort, tightness, or pain
  • A sense of lung pain
  • Gasping for air

Lung inflammation can also be associated with issues like fevers, weight loss, or hypertension. These effects are related to associated medical conditions and not to the lung inflammation itself.

Complications

Lung inflammation isn't always serious, like when you have a cold or mild case of the flu. But extensive inflammation can wear you down, such as with pneumonia or chronic obstructive airway disease (COPD).

And sometimes severe lung inflammation can seriously interfere with air and oxygen absorption into your lungs. This can cause effects of hypoxemia (low blood in the lungs) or hypoxia (low blood oxygen in the tissues), resulting in dizziness or loss of consciousness—and you will need urgent medical care to manage with these consequences.

chest pain causes
Illustration by Alexandra Gordon, Verywell 

Causes

Your lungs can become inflamed when they are infected, irritated, or damaged. Inflammation is the body's way of healing, so it's often a response to something harmful.

Sometimes, though, your lungs could become inflamed due to a hereditary disease like cystic fibrosis or an overreactive immune system, such as with an autoimmune condition like Sjogren's syndrome.

Inflammation of the alveoli (air sacs), or bronchi (airways) prevents air from easily passing in an out of your lungs and can make breathing a struggle. Inflammation may also increase the risk of lung infections by trapping infectious material in the lungs.

Though not exhaustive, this list covers the most common causes of lung inflammation.

Irritation

When the lungs encounter airborne toxins, such as cigarette smoke, pollutants, chemicals and environmental fumes—irritation results. And exposure to radiation, as with cancer treatment, can cause irritation as well.

Inflammation helps repair your lungs. Depending on the severity of the irritation, the inflammation can be short-lived with minimal consequences, or it can be lasting and harmful.

COPD

Chronic obstructive lung diseases include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These conditions often result from issues like smoking and are gradually progressive, involving substantial lung damage, mucus production, and inflammation. All of these issues exacerbate each other over time.

COPD is characterized by constant fatigue and difficulty breathing, often with exacerbations, which are episodes of worsening symptoms.

Asthma

Asthma is characterized by episodic inflammation and bronchospasm (sudden narrowing of the bronchi), which makes it hard for air to travel into the airways. The inflammation is often triggered by an infection or exposure to environmental irritants, and it may precede or trigger the bronchospasm.

Asthma attacks can cause severe respiratory symptoms. And there may be few symptoms of asthma in between asthma attacks.

Infections

Lung infections like acute bronchitis and pneumonia generally produce substantial inflammation in the lungs. The inflammation can be patchy, affecting areas throughout the lungs, or it can be localized to one area. The pattern of lung inflammation in pulmonary infections differs depending on the infection.

Generally, with a mild self-limited infection, lung inflammation should clear up as the infection resolves.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease that results in airway obstruction due to excess mucus production in the lungs. While it isn't primarily an inflammatory disease, it is often complicated by respiratory inflammation and a predisposition to pulmonary infections.

Cystic fibrosis is a chronic lifelong disease, and the symptoms can fluctuate over time, as can the inflammatory process in the lungs.

Chest Inflammation

There are different types and causes of chest inflammation. Sometimes inflammation spreads to the lungs from outside the lungs. Costochondritis—inflammation of the costal cartilage that joins your rib bone to your breastbone, is a common cause of chest inflammation. Costochondritis causes sharp or stinging pain that is reproducible when you or your doctor press on the affected chest wall area.

Chest wall pain (musculoskeletal chest pain) can develop if you have costochondritis or any type of inflammation in your chest wall or ribs.

Systemic Inflammation

Inflammatory diseases like fibromyalgia, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis can involve the lungs. These conditions can act-up episodically or sporadically, resulting in inflammation that primarily affects the joints or muscles. Lung inflammation is not an uncommon issue, however.

And it can be difficult to lung distinguish inflammation from a lung infection in these situations, especially because immunosuppressants (which increase the risk of infections) are a common treatment for these inflammatory conditions.

Lung Cancer

Cancer that starts in the lungs or spreads to the lungs from elsewhere can cause inflammation. Having cancer in the lungs causes a number of issues, including bleeding, obstruction of the airways, and pain. All of these complications of lung cancer can lead to inflammation and may also be worsened by inflammation.

Lung Injury

Any type of trauma in or near the lungs, such as a rib fracture or a pneumothorax, can cause an inflammatory response as the body attempts to heal from the damage. Sometimes this type of damage suddenly occurs due to trauma from outside the body—a puncture wound for example—or from inside the body—such as a tear in the lung tissue due to advanced lung disease.

Pericarditis

Pericarditis is an inflammation of the sac that surrounds the heart, and it can spread to the lungs. Pericarditis can develop due to an infection or non-infectious inflammation of the heart.

This serious condition typically produces sharp or stabbing chest pain that's worsened when taking a deep breath or coughing. A distinctive feature of pericarditis is that leaning forward while seated tends to ease the chest pain.

Pulmonary Embolus (PE)

PE is a blood clot in the lungs. These blood clots can vary in size. A large PE is a potentially life-threatening issue. While inflammation is not the first issue with a PE, your lungs can become secondarily inflamed due to damage from decreased blood flow.

Lung inflammation is a process—it is caused by disease and causes disease—often involving a decline in lung function if it isn't controlled.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of lung inflammation involves a careful evaluation of your symptoms and physical examination. Because there are so many causes of lung inflammation, the selection of diagnostic tests is based on which are most likely to be helpful.

Associated symptoms such as a fever, chest pain, or aching joints will help direct your medical team to the next steps in your diagnostic evaluation.

Ruling Out an Emergency

Most importantly, your doctor will determine whether your condition is an immediate threat to your health or whether it is more of a chronic issue.

Initial diagnostic strategies include a physical examination that assesses your respiratory rate and effort. Your doctor will look for signs like whether you are struggling to breathe and whether you are using accessory muscles to breathe, such as the muscles in your neck. These signs suggest that you could be at risk of a sudden decline and might need respiratory support soon—even before the cause of your lung inflammation is identified.

Additionally, your oxygen level will be checked, either with a pulse oximeter, arterial blood gas test, or both. Low oxygen saturation suggests a need for urgent intervention, such as supplemental oxygen.

Diagnostic Tests

A chest computed tomography (CT) scan, which is an imaging test that visualizes your chest and lungs, is a common approach for evaluating chest injuries, pulmonary inflammatory diseases, and severe pulmonary infections.

A ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) scan is the test of choice for evaluating a PE. And pulmonary function tests assess your breathing abilities, which can be impacted by lung inflammation.

If there is a concern that your symptoms are caused by a heart condition, you might need an electrocardiogram (ECG), blood tests to measure cardiac enzymes, and/or an echocardiogram.

Treatment

Treatment of lung inflammation can include urgent respiratory support, anti-inflammatory medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, and/or surgical intervention as needed. And if your lung inflammation is due to a PE, you will likely need a blood thinner medication or an interventional procedure.

Supplemental oxygen can help when you have a low oxygen saturation. In more severe situations, you might need respiratory support. This can include airway pressure or intubation. These measures are generally considered temporary because lung dysfunction can be harmful, or even fatal. They don't help reduce the inflammation—instead, they help prevent low oxygen levels while your inflammation is getting under control.

Anti-Inflammatories

Inhaled corticosteroids are often used to control inflammation in asthma and COPD. Systemic inflammation is often treated with oral or injected anti-inflammatories. If you have severe pneumonia, you might need treatment with an antibiotic to get rid of the infection—and sometimes anti-inflammatories are used as well.

But anti-inflammatories can increase your risk of infection, so they aren't always the right option, even in situations with severe lung inflammation.

Procedures and Surgery

If you have had damage to your lungs due to trauma, disease, or cancer, you might benefit from a procedure. Procedures can repair lung damage, such as damage from a deep penetrating injury. And a procedure may also be needed to remove an area of the lung that has been severely affected by a disease, such as cancer or COPD.

A Word From Verywell

Lung inflammation is the root cause of many lung diseases. Prescription-strength anti-inflammatories can reduce inflammation and prevent symptoms. But the treatment of lung inflammation is often complex, with a combination of several symptom-reducing strategies and disease-modifying approaches.

And avoiding irritating toxins like cigarette smoke and air pollutants can also help prevent acute lung inflammation and decrease the risk and exacerbation of chronic inflammatory lung diseases.

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