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Symptoms for interstitial lung disease in the early stages rarely require a visit to the emergency room, but do demand medical attention. You should call your WellStar physician if you experience breathing difficulties, frequent headaches or fevers, consistent sleepiness or confusion, cough with dark mucus, or blue coloring on or around your fingertips and nails.

Interstitial Lung Disease Overview

Interstitial lung disease refers to a broad selection of lung diseases in which the interstitium - the tissue surrounding and separating the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs – becomes inflamed, stiff or scarred. When this occurs, the air sacs cannot efficiently expand with each breath, thus restricting the amount of oxygen circulating through your lungs and your body.

Physicians believe that some interstitial lung diseases occur when an infection, autoimmune disease, injury, medications, toxins, radiation therapy or some other stimulus triggers an abnormal healing response. Normally, your body generates the proper amount of tissue to repair the damage, but with this disorder, your body produces excess scar tissue, which may impair normal lung function.

Often, your WellStar physician will be able to determine the initial cause of interstitial lung disease. But in many cases the cause is not known. Disorders without an identified cause are referred to as idiopathic (unknown) interstitial lung disease. Similar to interstitial lung diseases of known origins, the idiopathic varieties are categorized according to location, severity and pattern of lung involvement. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is the most common of these disorders.


The symptoms for interstitial lung disease may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain

As the symptoms worsen, you may even notice you’re becoming breathless even during the most routine activities such as getting dressed or eating. Over time, you may experience weight loss, muscle and joint pain and fatigue. In more advanced stages of interstitial lung disease, you may experience cyanosis, a blue coloring of the lips, skin or fingernails due to the lack of oxygen; clubbing, abnormal enlargement of the fingernails; or pulmonary hypertension, a type of high blood pressure that affects the arteries within the lungs.

Risk Factors

Interstitial lung disease typically affects adults, although infants and children may develop the disorder. Several other factors make you more susceptible to interstitial lung disease. These include:

  • Exposure to toxins: If your work or living arrangements expose you to pollutants that are known to damage your lungs (asbestos, silica dust, bacteria or fungal overgrowth, agricultural grains and dust), your risk increases greatly.
  • Radiation and chemotherapy: Radiation treatments to your chest and some chemotherapy drugs increase your chances for some form of this disorder.
  • Oxygen: The continuous inhalation of therapeutic oxygen for more than 48 hours can harm the lungs.

Specific to idiopathic interstitial lung disease, researchers believe several factors put you at risk, such as smoking, genetic factors and gastro esophageal reflux disease, where stomach acids back up into your esophagus and get drawn into your lungs.