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Pulmonary Fibrosis Causes and Risk Factors

Pulmonary fibrosis can be linked to different causes or triggers. But in most cases, the cause of pulmonary fibrosis unknown. This is referred to as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or IPF.

While there is no cure for pulmonary fibrosis, experts can provide you with treatments to help reduce symptoms and slow the scarring process in your lungs. Because of this, it’s important to understand the type of pulmonary fibrosis you have and what may have caused it. An accurate diagnosis will help your healthcare team determine the most effective treatment for you.

Causes of Pulmonary Fibrosis 

Research on what causes pulmonary fibrosis is ongoing, but some of the known factors include:

Autoimmune Disorders

Autoimmune conditions cause your immune system to defend itself against your body’s own natural processes. This can lead to scarring in the connective tissues of your lungs. Autoimmune disorders that are linked to pulmonary fibrosis include:

Environmental Exposure 

Breathing in chemicals and long-term exposure to hazardous substances can lead to lung damage. People with pulmonary fibrosis are sometimes exposed to substances such as:

  • Asbestos, a material used in the construction of buildings prior to the 1980s
  • Grain dust from harvesting wheat, barley, rye, oats, or corn
  • Silica, a natural material used in construction, maritime, manufacturing, and hydraulic fracturing
  • Pollutants in the air, such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), or particulate matter (PM10)
  • Radiation to the chest, which is used to treat conditions such as lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, or certain cancers
  • Bird or other animal droppings
  • Mold


Certain medications can cause side effects that damage your lungs and may lead to drug-induced pulmonary fibrosis. Be sure to work with your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits before taking any medication.

Risk Factors for Pulmonary Fibrosis

You are more at risk of developing pulmonary fibrosis if you:

  • Were assigned male at birth
  • Are between the ages of 40 and 70
  • Have a history of smoking
  • Have a closely related family member or someone from a consecutive generation with pulmonary fibrosis
  • Had cancer treatments, particularly chest radiation
  • Work in an occupation that exposes you to hazardous substances, such as farming, mining, or construction


Research suggests there may be a link between idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Studies are ongoing to determine if GERD treatment may help slow the lung scarring seen in IPF.

Pulmonary Fibrosis and Genetics 

Familial pulmonary fibrosis (FPF) occurs when 2 or more members of the same family develop pulmonary fibrosis. Some 2% of FPF cases are linked to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Research suggests family history and exposure to certain environmental factors such as cigarette smoke may increase your risk of developing IPF. Studies are ongoing to further understand the link between FPF and IPF.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis 

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is diagnosed when the cause of pulmonary fibrosis is unknown. IPF is usually diagnosed between the ages of 50 and 70, and is the most common type of pulmonary fibrosis. As with other types of pulmonary fibrosis, IPF causes thickening and scarring of the lungs resulting in a dry, hacking cough. While the cause is unknown, studies suggest a variant in the MUC5B gene may be the most important risk factor. 

Learn more about the latest advances in IPF >

Ready for an Appointment?

If you are experiencing symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis or suspect you may be at a higher risk, it is important to make an appointment with a doctor who specializes in pulmonary fibrosis.

Schedule an appointment with a Temple pulmonologist by calling 800-TEMPLE-MED (800-836-7536).

Massa Zantah

Page medically reviewed by:
Massa Zantah, MD
August 26, 2022