What Is Inflammation of the Lungs?

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Lung inflammation can be acute or chronic, and there are many possible causes, including exposures, infections, and diseases like asthma or bronchitis. Because inflammation of the lungs can affect their functioning, it can cause wheezing, difficulty breathing, or chest pain and tightness.

The diagnosis of lung inflammation involves a multifaceted approach, incorporating a physical examination, imaging tests, pulmonary function tests, and more. Depending on the cause, lung inflammation can be treated with medications or procedures to alleviate the symptoms and control the underlying disease. Prevention strategies like avoiding triggers are also important.

Symptoms of Lung Inflammation

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 be unable to overlook 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

Issues like fevers, weight loss, or hypertension can also occur. But these effects are related to the underlying medical conditions that give way to lung inflammation, 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 even moderate levels of lung inflammation can wear you down, such as with pneumonia or chronic obstructive airway disease (COPD). Your body consumes energy to fight infection, and diminished airflow due to lung inflammation can result in low oxygen—and, therefore, low energy.

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. You will need urgent medical care to manage these consequences.

Airway Remodeling

Chronic inflammation can contribute to airway remodeling, in which the airways become thickened and prone to mucous secretion. The effects of airways remodeling include lung congestion, difficulty clearing secretions, and a tendency to have lung infections.

Ventilation can be affected too, with diminished oxygen absorption and carbon dioxide release. If you become very sick due to an acute infection, the effects of airway remodeling can make you prone to hypercapnia (carbon dioxide retention), necessitating mechanical ventilation.

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 Sjögren'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.

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. Inflammation in the lungs can be diffuse, throughout the lungs, or it can be concentrated in specific regions. Pulmonary sarcoidosis, for instance, may cause lung granulomas, which are large inflammatory nodules.

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

Irritant Exposure

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

When the lungs encounter airborne toxins, such as cigarette smoke, pollutants, chemicals, and environmental fumes, irritation results. Pneumonitis is a type of diffuse lung inflammation that can develop in response to chemical irritants.

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

Infections

Lung infections like acute bronchitis and pneumonia generally produce substantial inflammation in the lungs. The inflammation can be patchy, affecting spots 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.

Severe lung infections may cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a life-threatening condition in which lung function suddenly declines.

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.

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.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterized by constant fatigue and difficulty breathing, often with exacerbations, which are episodes of worsening symptoms.

Chest Inflammation

There are different types and causes of chest inflammation. Sometimes inflammation spreads to the lungs from outside them.

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 Diseases

Inflammatory diseases like fibromyalgia, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, and sarcoidosis 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 uncommon.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

Diagnosis

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

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, as they may help narrow down the possible diagnoses worth exploring first.

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

The treatment of lung inflammation is often complex, involving a combination of several symptom-reducing strategies and disease-modifying approaches. Treatment of lung inflammation can include urgent respiratory support, anti-inflammatory medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, and/or surgical intervention as needed.

Urgent Management

While inflammation can be treated, a respiratory emergency often requires intervention aimed at quickly delivering oxygen to the lungs because lung dysfunction can be harmful, or even fatal.

Supplemental oxygen can help when you have a low oxygen saturation and can breathe on your own. In more severe situations, you might need respiratory support to help you breathe. This can include airway pressure or intubation.

These measures are generally considered temporary because the goal is for you to breathe on your own rather than relying on mechanical support that keeps you bedbound (and hospital-bound). Some people who have chronic inflammatory lung conditions need to use home oxygen therapy for the long term, however.

Mechanical respiratory support and oxygen supplementation don't help reduce lung inflammation. Rather, 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. Prescription-strength anti-inflammatories can reduce inflammation and prevent symptoms.

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 extensive lung inflammation.

Tailored Treatments

Tailored treatments that target the causative disease (besides anti-inflammatories) are often necessary. For instance, if your lung inflammation is due to a PE, you will likely need a blood thinner medication or an interventional procedure.

Antibiotics are often needed to treat bacterial pneumonia, and other antimicrobials are used when the cause of inflammation is a fungal infection or a parasite. Chemotherapy might be prescribed for lung cancer.

These treatments don't directly reduce inflammation, but they do help alleviate the underlying cause of inflammation.

Procedures and Surgery

If you have had damage to your lungs due to trauma, disease, or cancer, you might benefit from an interventional procedure. Procedures can repair some types of lung damage, such as the harm incurred by a deep penetrating injury. A surgical repair can remove harmful materials, like glass or metal, and repair tears in the tissue or blood vessels to stop bleeding and promote optimal healing.

Surgery may also be needed to remove an area of the lung that has been severely affected by a disease, such as cancer or COPD. Generally, lung surgery for treating cancer involves removing cancerous lesions with as little damage to the healthy areas of the lungs as possible. And surgical intervention for COPD entails removing severely damaged areas of the lung that impede airflow in healthy areas of the lung.

A Word From Verywell

Lung inflammation is a major aspect of many lung diseases. Not only does lung inflammation contribute to respiratory symptoms, but it also causes slow and permanent harm to the lungs over time. Even if you feel that you can tolerate some of your symptoms (like a chronic cough), it's important to get medical attention so you won't develop further lung damage.

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