What Is Inflammation of the Lungs?

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Lung inflammation can come from exposures, infections, and diseases like asthma or bronchitis. It may be a short-lived response or a long-term condition. Wheezing, breathing problems, and chest pain and tightness are all possible symptoms of inflamed lungs.

Diagnosing lung inflammation usually involves a physical exam, imaging tests, lung function tests, and more.

Depending on the cause, it could be treated with medication, surgery, or both. The aim will be to relieve symptoms and control the disease causing the inflammation. Your treatment plan could also include ways to prevent inflammation in the future.

This article explains some common symptoms and causes of lung inflammation. It also discusses how inflammation in the lungs is treated.

Symptoms of Lung Inflammation

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Lung Inflammation Symptoms

Symptoms of lung inflammation can come on very suddenly or take a little longer to develop. How quickly symptoms show up depends on the extent of inflammation, the cause, and your overall health.

If you have chronic (long-term) inflammation, you might get used to the situation and start ignoring your symptoms. That's easier to do if they are mild and fairly steady.

With acute (sudden or short-term) inflammation, it's hard to ignore the effects because they can get worse quickly. You probably won't be able to overlook the fact that something is wrong.

Symptoms of lung inflammation can include:

  • Feeling tired after physical activity
  • A general sense of fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Dry or productive (i.e., mucus-producing) cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest discomfort or tightness
  • A sense of lung pain
  • Gasping for air

Fevers, weight loss, or high blood pressure can also occur along with these symptoms. However, these effects come from some underlying medical conditions, not the inflammation itself.

Complications

Lung inflammation isn't always serious, like when you have a cold or mild case of the flu.

But illnesses that cause more inflammation, such as pneumonia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can wear you down. That's because your body has to use extra energy to fight the infection. It may also be because of reduced airflow. If you're getting less oxygen, you'll probably have low energy.

Severe inflammation can seriously limit airflow or lower your ability to absorb oxygen. This can cause hypoxemia (low oxygen in the blood) or hypoxia (low oxygen in the tissues). Either one can leave you feeling dizzy. You could even lose consciousness.

Urgent medical care is needed to manage these effects.

Airway Remodeling

Any change in your airways—for example, their thickness, composition, or volume—is known as airway remodeling.

Chronic inflammation can cause this by causing your airways to thicken or make more mucus. Your lungs could become congested and you might have trouble clearing that mucus out. You may also be more likely to develop lung infections.

Airway changes can lower the amount of oxygen your lungs absorb. Over time, it could be harder to release carbon dioxide. If you become very sick with an infection, airway changes could make you prone to hypercapnia (carbon dioxide retention). In that case, you might need a ventilator to help you breathe.

Recap

Inflammation can cause breathing problems, pain, chest tightness, extra mucus, and fatigue. If it goes on too long, your airways could change in ways that make it hard for you to get enough oxygen.

Causes

Your lungs can become inflamed when they are infected, irritated, or damaged. Inflammation is the body's way of healing when something harmful happens.

Diseases that are inherited genetically, like cystic fibrosis and Sjögren's syndrome, can also cause inflammation. With an autoimmune condition like Sjögren's, the body attacks its own healthy tissues as if they were an invader, like a virus or bacterium.

When alveoli (air sacs) or bronchi (airways) are inflamed, air can't easily pass in and out of your lungs. Breathing can be a struggle. Inflammation may also raise the risk of infections by trapping infected material in the lungs.

Inflammation is a process. It is caused by disease and it causes disease. If it isn't controlled, your lungs can stop working.

Inflammation may involve the whole lung or specific spots within the lung. Pulmonary sarcoidosis, for instance, may cause large nodules called lung granulomas.

This list covers the most common causes of lung inflammation.

Irritants

When airborne toxins enter the lungs, irritation results. Common irritants include:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Pollutants
  • Chemicals
  • Fumes

Inflammation helps repair your lungs. If the irritation is not severe, the inflammation can be short-lived and cause minimal consequences. If the irritation continues, inflammation could be more harmful.

Pneumonitis is a type of inflammation that comes from being exposed to chemical irritants. It can affect the whole lung.

Exposure to radiation, as with cancer treatment, can cause radiation pneumonitis.

Infections

Lung infections like bronchitis and pneumonia can inflame the lungs. The inflammation can be patchy, affecting spots throughout the lungs, or it could be localized to one area. The pattern differs depending on the infection.

With a mild infection, inflammation should clear up as the infection does.

Severe infections may cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is a life-threatening condition.

Asthma

Asthma causes episodes of inflammation that are often triggered by an infection or exposure to environmental irritants. It also cause episodes of bronchospasm (sudden narrowing of the bronchi). Either of these can happen first.

Asthma attacks can cause severe breathing problems; it's hard for air to get into the airways when they are occurring.

There may be few symptoms in between asthma attacks.

COPD

Chronic lung diseases include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking has been linked to these conditions.

These disorders are progressive, which means they get worse over time. They cause lung damage, excess mucus, and inflammation. All of these issues make each other worse over time.

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease feel a constant sense of fatigue. They have trouble breathing and may have exacerbations, or times when symptoms get much worse.

Chest Inflammation

Chest inflammation can spread from the outside of the lungs to the inside.

Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage that joins your rib bone to your breastbone. It causes sharp or stinging pain when something or someone presses on the chest wall area.

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

Systemic Diseases

Fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and sarcoidosis are systemic diseases, or those that affect the entire body. They can act up, or flare, from time to time, affecting joints, muscles, and possibly even the lungs. Lung inflammation is not uncommon.

It can be hard to tell the difference between inflammation and a lung infection in these situations. One reason is that the medications used to treat inflammatory conditions can raise your risk of getting an infection.

Lung Injury

Any type of trauma to or near the lungs can cause inflammation as the body tries to heal itself.

This could include obvious injuries like a rib fracture due to a fall, a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) after a car accident, or a puncture wound from a work mishap.

It also includes any trauma that results from an internal cause—for example, a tear in lung tissue due to advanced lung disease.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease. Excess mucus in the lungs causes the airways to become blocked. While it isn't primarily an inflammatory disease, inflammation can make it worse. Cystic fibrosis also makes it more likely you'll get a lung infection.

Cystic fibrosis is a lifelong disease. Symptoms and inflammation can get better and worse over time.

Pericarditis

Pericarditis is an inflammation of the sac that surrounds the heart. It can spread to the lungs.

Pericarditis can be caused by some medical treatments, infection, a heart attack, and certain diseases.

This serious condition often causes sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you take a deep breath or cough. Leaning forward while seated tends to ease the chest pain.

Pulmonary Embolus

pulmonary embolus (PE) is a blood clot in the lungs. These clots can vary in size. A large PE is potentially life-threatening.

While inflammation is not the first issue with a PE, your lungs can become inflamed due to damage from less blood flow.

Lung Cancer

Cancer in the lungs causes bleeding, airway blockage, and pain. All of these complications of lung cancer can lead to inflammation. This is regardless of whether the cancer starts in the lungs or travels to them from elsewhere.

The resulting inflammation can also make these complications worse.

Recap

Environmental irritants, infections, diseases, and injuries can all lead to inflammation.

Diagnosis

To find out whether your lungs are inflamed, your doctor will examine you and evaluate your symptoms. Because there are so many possible causes of lung inflammation, the tests you have will depend on your specific symptoms.

Ruling Out an Emergency

Most importantly, your healthcare provider will determine whether your condition is an immediate threat to your health that must be treated or a more chronic issue that must be managed.

During your physical exam, your healthcare provider will measure how fast you breathe. They will also look for signs that you're struggling to breathe. For example, if you need to use the muscles in your neck to draw a breath, you might need help breathing soon—even before an exact cause is known.

Your oxygen level will be checked, either with a pulse oximeter, arterial blood gas test, or both. If you are found to have a low amount of oxygen traveling around the body with your red blood cells, known as low oxygen saturation, you might need some breathing support such as supplemental oxygen.

Diagnostic Tests

A computed tomography (CT) scan—imaging of your chest and lungs—is a common way to check for chest injuries, inflammatory diseases, and severe infections.

A ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) scan is the test of choice for evaluating a PE. This imaging test traces the flow of air and blood through your lungs.

You might also have a lung function test to check how well you're breathing.

If your doctor thinks you might have a heart condition, you might need:

  • An electrocardiogram (ECG), a test that measures the electrical activity of the heart
  • An echocardiogram, a test that evaluates how well the heart's chambers and valves are working
  • Blood tests to measure cardiac enzymes, which are released if and when the heart is injured

Recap

To find out what's causing inflammation, you may need imaging tests that show injuries, infections, and signs of disease. To see how well you're breathing, you might need a lung function test. Other tests show whether your heart is being affected.

Treatment

Treatment can be complex. That's because there may be more than one goal. Your treatment plan will aim to control your symptoms and to treat the condition that's causing them.

Your treatment plan could include urgent breathing support, anti-inflammatory medications, such as corticosteroids, or surgery if needed.

Urgent Care

If you're having a breathing emergency, you may need treatments that deliver oxygen to your lungs quickly. Lung problems like these can be harmful or even fatal.

Extra oxygen can help when you have a low oxygen saturation but you can breathe on your own. In more severe situations, you might need respiratory support to help you breathe.

This support could include airway pressure, which usually involves wearing a mask connected to an oxygen pump. It could also include intubation, which is when a tube is eased into the mouth and down the throat and hooked up to a machine that streams oxygen into airways.

These measures are usually temporary. They don't help reduce lung inflammation. Rather, they help prevent low oxygen levels while you're getting better. The ultimate goal is for you to breathe on your own.

If you have a chronic lung condition, however, you may need to use home oxygen therapy for the long term. This type of therapy usually involves a portable oxygen tank and thin tubing that brings oxygen into your nose.

Medication

Inhaled corticosteroids are often used to control inflammation in asthma and COPD. If the inflammation has spread through your system, you may need prescription oral or injected anti-inflammatories.

Anti-inflammatories can increase your risk of infection, so they aren't always the right option.

You might need medications that target the disease causing the inflammation. For instance, if you have a PE, you will likely need a drug that thins your blood. If you have pneumonia, you might also need an antibiotic to get rid of the infection.

Antimicrobials treat fungal infections or parasites. Chemotherapy might be prescribed for lung cancer.

These treatments don't directly reduce inflammation, but they help address the cause.

Procedures and Surgery

If you have lung damage due to trauma, disease, or cancer, you might need a repair procedure.

Surgery can also be done to remove harmful materials such as glass or metal that may have entered the lungs during an accident. It can also mend tears in the tissue or blood vessels.

Surgery may also be needed to remove an area of the lung that has been damaged by a disease. Generally, lung surgery for cancer involves removing lesions with as little harm to the healthy areas as possible. Surgery for COPD entails removing damaged areas of the lung that keep air from flowing freely.

Recap

Common treatments include extra oxygen support and medications to reduce inflammation or treat the underlying cause. In some cases, surgery is needed to repair the lung or take out damaged tissue.

Summary

Your lungs can be inflamed because of illness, injury, or exposure to something in your environment. Lung inflammation can make it harder to breathe. Over time, if the inflammation doesn't improve, it can damage your lungs.

To find out what's causing inflammation, you may need several tests. Some tests will measure how well you're breathing. Others will be done to identify the underlying problem.

If you're having a breathing emergency, the most important step is to make sure you're getting enough oxygen. You need medical attention to do that.

Once your symptoms are under control and the cause is determined, you and your healthcare provider can create a treatment plan. The plan could include breathing treatments, medications, surgery, or a combination.

A Word From Verywell

Lung inflammation is a major aspect of many lung diseases. It can contribute to respiratory symptoms. And it can also cause slow and permanent harm to the lungs over time.

Even if you feel that you can live with some of your symptoms (like a chronic cough), it's important to get medical care so you don't develop further lung damage.

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