Interstitial lung diseases

What is interstitial lung disease, and what causes it?

Interstitial lung diseases (ILD) are a group of lung conditions that affect the lungs' interstitium. The interstitium is a lace-like network of tissue that supports the tiny air sacs within the lungs, known as the alveoli. When air is inhaled, it goes through the airways to the bronchioles, and at the end of each bronchiole, there is an alveolar sac. These alveolar sacs are responsible for allowing gas exchange between blood and the air in the lungs. When they become scarred and thickened, their ability to expand is compromised, and so is their functioning. Interstitial lung diseases thus affect the ability to breathe as well as affect the gas exchange in and out of the bloodstream.

Interstitial lung diseases (ILD) can be triggered by airborne toxins, including asbestos, silica dust, talc, metal dust, grain dust and bird proteins. These lung diseases seem to be caused by an abnormal healing response to a lung injury, causing thickening of the interstitium due to inflammation, oedema or scarring. Types of interstitial lung diseases include:

  • Interstitial pneumonia
  • Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
  • Nonspecific interstitial pneumonitis
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis
  • Cryptogenic organizing pneumonia (COP)
  • Acute interstitial pneumonitis
  • Desquamative interstitial pneumonitis
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Asbestosis

What are the symptoms associated with interstitial lung disease?

The most common signs and symptoms of these diseases are:

  • Shortness of breath which worsens over time
  • A dry cough
  • Unexplained weight loss

Many people with these lung diseases have trouble breathing, and since these conditions may also lead to further complications such as right heart failure and respiratory failure, you should see your physician if you are experiencing these symptoms.

How can this condition be treated?

Sadly, the scarring of the lung tissue as a result of interstitial lung disease cannot be reversed, and treatment may not be able to stop the progression of the disease entirely. Instead, treatment may be aimed at slowing the progression and relieving the symptoms of these lung diseases. Treatment may include medications to slow the progression, such as corticosteroids and GERD therapies. Your lung specialist may advise oxygen therapy and pulmonary exercise therapy to ease the symptoms, ensure the gas exchange, and make breathing easier. In more severe cases, a lung transplant may be considered.

Schedule an appointment

Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital

Suite 1613, 16th floor, Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital, Cnr DF Malan Street and Rua Bartholemeu Dias Plain, Foreshore, Cape Town, 8001