Interstitial Lung Disease

Interstitial lung disease is a group of conditions with inflammation and scarring around the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. The changes make it hard to take in oxygen.

Inside your lungs

When you breathe, air travels in and out of your lungs through the windpipe (trachea), airways (bronchi), and branching airways (bronchioles). Oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are exchanged in the tiny air sacs (alveoli). Oxygen passes from the alveoli to the blood vessels through the tissue called interstitium. The blood vessels then carry oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. Carbon dioxide moves back from the blood vessels to the alveoli and is then exhaled.

Outline of human head and chest showing lungs and diaphragm. Diaphragm is muscle below lungs. It flattens to draw air in as you inhale, then rises as you exhale. Cross section of bronchiole and alveoli. Bronchiole is smallest airway. Alveoli are air sacs at end of bronchioles. Blood vessels surround alveoli. Closeup of interstitium between alveoli and blood vessel showing oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. Cross section of damaged alveoli supplying less oxygen to body. Closeup of scarred interstitium not able to exchange enough oxygen and carbon dioxide.

How lungs become damaged

With interstitial lung disease, there is inflammation and scarring around the alveoli in the lungs. The chanages make it hard to take in oxygen.

Causes of interstitial lung disease

In most cases, interstitial lung disease has no known cause. Some known causes include:

  • Dust from asbestos or silica, gases, fumes, or poisons

  • Some medications

  • Radiation therapy

  • Certain lung infections

  • Connective tissue disease (such as scleroderma, systemic lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis)

Treatment for interstitial lung disease

Treatment may include medication, breathing techniques, exercise, and stress management. In some cases, a lung transplant is an option. Your healthcare team may include:

  • A primary care provider, such as your family doctor or internist

  • A pulmonologist, a specialist in lung problems

  • A respiratory therapist who provides treatment and support for people with lung disease

  • A social worker who helps with your daily needs, family life, and stress