Scars on the lung tissue cause it to thicken and lose elasticity. Doctors refer to lung scarring as “pulmonary fibrosis”. It can occur due to certain health conditions and exposure to hazardous materials.

Lung scars can result from illness or medical treatment, and they are permanent.

Small scars may not cause noticeable symptoms, but extensive scarring can make it hard for a person to breathe, as it can affect the transfer of oxygen into the bloodstream. As a result, the brain and other organs may not receive the oxygen that they need.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a long-term condition in which lung scarring becomes gradually worse. It can be life threatening.

In this article, we look at why lung scarring happens and discuss some of the treatment options available.

a man coughing because of lung scarring or pulmonary fibrosisShare on Pinterest
A person with lung scarring may experience a dry cough.

Several conditions can cause scarring of the lungs.

Interstitial lung disease

Interstitial lung disease involves inflammation of the air sacs or the web of tissue (interstitium) that surrounds them in the lungs. The inflammation can sometimes cause scar tissue to build up within the lungs, resulting in fibrosis.

IPF is the most common type of interstitial lung disease. If doctors describe a condition as idiopathic, this means that they do not know exactly what causes it.

IPF typically appears between the ages of 50 and 70 years. There are up to 207,000 people affected in the United States, and about 58,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Other causes and risk factors

Other risk factors for interstitial lung disease include:

In some cases, there may be a family history of the disease.

Some people experience exacerbations, during which symptoms suddenly worsen. These last for a while and then resolve. Exposure to triggers, such as tobacco smoke, may cause a flare.

The scarring of lung tissue makes it thick and stiff. As the lung tissue thickens, it becomes increasingly difficult for the body to transfer oxygen from the lungs into the bloodstream. As a result, the brain and other organs may not receive enough oxygen.

The symptoms depend on the amount of scarring and how much of the lung it affects, but they may include:

Scarring may also increase the risk of lung cancer.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

The symptoms of IPF may not be noticeable at first, but they tend to develop and worsen over time, making it increasingly difficult to breathe.

Eventually, pulmonary hypertension or respiratory failure can develop, both of which can be life threatening because they prevent oxygen from reaching the body’s organs.

Many factors can lead to a cough or breathlessness, and many conditions can result in lung scarring.

Anyone who has concerns about breathing symptoms should seek medical help. A doctor will carry out a physical examination.

They will ask the person about:

  • individual and family medical history
  • smoking habits
  • possible exposure to pollutants, such as asbestos

After this, the doctor may carry out some tests, such as:

They may also carry out specific tests to rule out other conditions, such as TB.

As with scars on the skin, scars on the lung are permanent. It is not usually possible to remove them. The lungs are resilient, however, and small scars often do not cause any adverse effects.

Proper diagnosis and monitoring of the scars are key to treatment.

Scars that remain unchanged fortwo years or more are not usually a cause for concern. However, if they spread, they could indicate pulmonary fibrosis.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

Currently, a lung transplant is the only cure for IPF. However, a doctor can prescribe medications to help slow the progression of the disease and prevent flares. Pirfenidone (Esbriet) and nintedanib (Ofev) are two drugs that have proven effective.

As the disease progresses, the symptoms can become more severe. They can also worsen during a flare. In these cases, a person may need to spend time in the hospital. Treatment will include supplemental oxygen to support the person’s breathing.

Occasionally, a doctor may recommend a transplant. This procedure can cure the condition, but the person will need to take medications for the rest of their life.

Lifestyle tips that may help prevent or relieve symptoms include:

  • quitting smoking, if applicable, or avoiding secondhand smoke
  • eating a healthy and varied diet
  • doing regular exercise
  • maintaining a moderate weight to improve breathing capacity
  • taking precautions to avoid catching infections from others
  • avoiding exposure to pollutants and dust

It is important to talk to a doctor before making any significant lifestyle or dietary changes. A doctor can advise on a suitable exercise regimen, for example.

The outlook for pulmonary fibrosis varies among individuals and depends partly on a person’s age and overall health. The person will need regular assessments.

In the past,most people diagnosed with IPF had a life expectancy of 3–5 years.

However, new medications may slow the progression of the condition and reduce the risk of death in the first few years after diagnosis. Doctors hope that the outlook will continue to improve.

Below are some commonly asked questions about lung scarring.

Is scarring of the lungs serious?

Yes, scarring of the lungs, also known as pulmonary fibrosis, may be a serious condition.

When lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred, it leads to stiffness in the lungs and makes it difficult for them to function properly.

This can result in symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent dry cough, fatigue, and, in severe cases, respiratory failure.

How are scarred lungs treated?

Treatment options for scarred lungs, particularly in the case of IPF, often involve a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and supportive therapies.

Two medications that have shown effectiveness in slowing down the progression of scarring of the lungs are pirfenidone and nintedanib.

Can a person live 20 years with pulmonary fibrosis?

People with pulmonary fibrosis experience disease progression at different rates. Some people progress slowly and live with the condition for many years, while others decline more quickly.

Ultimately, it is a serious disease but research advancements are being made all the time that allow people to live longer and have a better quality of life.

What is the life expectancy of someone with ILD?

Interstitial lung disease (ILD) is an umbrella term used for a large group of diseases that cause scarring of the lungs.

Therefore, a person’s life expectancy can vary widely depending on several factors, including the specific type and severity of the ILD, their overall health, whether they smoke, and how well they respond to treatment.

Pulmonary fibrosis, or lung scarring, causes thickened and less elastic lung tissue.

Risk factors include having a previous viral infection or pneumonia, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), smoking, and aging. Alternatively, the condition can be idiopathic – meaning the exact cause is unknown.

Diagnosis entails tests like X-rays and CT scans, with treatments encompassing medication to decelerate progression. Lifestyle modifications, such as stopping smoking and weight management, may also aid symptom management. In more severe cases, a lung transplant may be necessary.

Despite a traditionally restricted life expectancy, these advancements in medications give hope for better outcomes.