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Pulmonary Fibrosis Symptoms

Pulmonary fibrosis symptoms tend to develop over time. They may be very mild early on and can worsen as more scar tissue develops in the lungs. How fast the symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis develop may differ significantly from person to person.
Pulmonary fibrosis symptoms can come on quickly or may take years to develop. At first, you may not even notice that you have symptoms, or may simply shrug off your symptoms as a common condition. But over time, scarring in your lungs causes your lungs to become stiff. This makes it hard for your body to get the oxygen it needs. When your body has low oxygen, you may have symptoms such as cough and breathlessness. As the stiffness and scarring worsen, your symptoms may progress.

Symptoms Are Similar to Other Lung Conditions

Diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis can be difficult. That’s because symptoms such as cough and shortness of breath are also related to other conditions. While most people are diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis between the ages of 50 and 70, the condition may have been present many years before diagnosis. 

Pulmonary fibrosis may be mistaken for other lung conditions, such as:

Because early treatment may help relieve symptoms and slow scarring in the lungs, it’s important to get a correct diagnosis right away. Temple pulmonologists have years of experience and access to sophisticated technology to help identify complex lung diseases and give you a better chance of being treated for the right condition. It’s okay to request a second opinion if you have questions or feel you need a different viewpoint.

Helping your doctor diagnose your condition

During your initial visit with your pulmonologist, be sure to talk about risk factors that may give clues about your condition. This includes information about:

  • Family history of pulmonary fibrosis
  • History of smoking
  • Exposure to lung irritants or pollutants, such as chemical exposure or fumes
  • History of working in mining, farming or construction where you are exposed to dust
  • Having radiation treatment to your chest or taking chemotherapy drugs

Most Common Symptoms

The most common symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis are shortness of breath with exercise or exertion and dry cough that does not seem to get better.

At first breathlessness, or shortness of breath, gets worse during exercise. As your condition worsens, you may feel breathless during normal everyday activities such as taking a shower, talking on the telephone or eating

Other Symptoms

Other symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis include:

  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Clubbing — widening and rounding of the tips of the fingers or toes
  • Bluish discoloration of fingers or toes, caused by low blood oxygen levels
  • Swelling in the feet or legs

If you have idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, it may lead to or occur alongside other problems, including lung infections, blood clots in the lungs and lung cancer. As pulmonary fibrosis becomes more severe, patients may develop other serious conditions, including respiratory failure, pulmonary hypertension and heart failure.

Pulmonary fibrosis symptoms tend to worsen over time, from mild to moderate and severe to very severe. As your condition progresses, you may develop other symptoms such as:

  • Blue discoloration of the fingers or toes
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Swelling in the feet and legs
  • Tiredness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Widening or rounding of the fingertips or toes, a condition called clubbing

Sometimes pulmonary fibrosis, including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, leads to other serious problems, such as:

  • Lung infections

At its most severe, pulmonary fibrosis can also lead to conditions such as:

Acute Exacerbation

Some people develop acute exacerbation of their condition. This is when you have a sudden worsening of your pulmonary fibrosis symptoms over the course of days or weeks. While this may be triggered by a lung infection or other illness, acute exacerbation usually has no apparent cause. Doctors diagnose acute exacerbation based on how severe your symptoms are, the condition of the lungs on high-resolution CT scan, and by ruling out other conditions. 

Acute exacerbation can be very serious, so it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. Treatments for acute exacerbation include:

  • Steroid therapy
  • Antifibrotic medicines, such as nintedanib and pirfenidone
  • Immunosuppressant medications
  • Antibiotics
  • Supplementary oxygen

When to Get Emergency Help

If your acute exacerbation symptoms are very severe, please contact your doctor or visit the emergency room immediately to get proper treatment. Severe symptoms may include:

  • Ongoing cough
  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Blue fingertips or toes, or blue lips
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Oxygen saturation drops
  • You are not safe at home

For severe cases, doctors may recommend a mechanical ventilator device to help your lungs do their job.

Ready for an Appointment?

If you're experiencing signs or symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis, schedule an appointment or call 800-TEMPLE-MED (800-836-7536) today.

Learn more about our doctors and care team who diagnose and treat pulmonary fibrosis.

Massa Zantah

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