5 Surprising Risk Factors for Pulmonary Fibrosis

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Most of us are well aware of the factors that can put us at risk for lung cancer. Less well-known are the various factors that can put us at risk for another serious lung disease -- pulmonary fibrosis. This condition occurs when the tissue deep in the lungs becomes thick and stiff. Over time, the damaged tissue forms scar tissue that thickens, making it difficult to breathe and prompting a number of symptoms.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a progressive illness, and determining the cause can be challenging. Research has shown that the condition is most likely to affect people between the ages of 50 and 75. But aside from age, there are a number of surprising risk factors for pulmonary fibrosis.

These risk factors include:

• Autoimmune Diseases
• Pollutants & Smoking
• Genetics
• Medications

1. Autoimmune Disease

People with autoimmune diseases are at higher risk of pulmonary fibrosis. Autoimmune diseases that can lead to the lung condition include rheumatoid arthritis lupus, and scleroderma, according to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. Instead of producing antibodies to fight invaders, the immune system of an autoimmune disease sufferer attacks the lung tissue, causing inflammation. That inflammation leads to the scarring and thickening of the lung tissue, resulting in pulmonary fibrosis.

2. Pollutants & Smoking

Pulmonary fibrosis can develop after long-term or significant exposure to environmental or on-the-job pollutants such as bird or animal droppings, silica dust, grain dust or asbestos. Exposure to these substances can irritate and inflame the lung tissue and may contribute to the development of the disease. Smoking tobacco is another major risk factor for pulmonary fibrosis, in addition to other serious lung conditions such as COPD or lung cancer.

3. GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may be one of the most surprising risk factors for pulmonary fibrosis. Research indicates that the condition is associated with pulmonary fibrosis. GERD is a digestive disorder where the stomach's acid backs up into the esophagus. Prolonged or left untreated, the introduction of the stomach acid into the respiratory system can produce scarring that may lead to pulmonary fibrosis.

4. Genetics

Studies suggest that the development of pulmonary fibrosis may be linked to genetics, according to the Mayo Clinic. There appears to be a gene that predisposes people to lung disease in general, and pulmonary fibrosis in particular. For those with a family history of this predisposition, the presence of environmental and other risk factors such as smoking are more likely to result in pulmonary fibrosis.

5. Certain Medications

Drug-induced pulmonary fibrosis happens when someone with no previous lung problems develops respiratory symptoms due to medications they’re taking. These symptoms can then lead to pulmonary fibrosis. For example, chemotherapy drugs are designed specifically for killing cancer cells, but may also damage lung tissue.

Taking some antibiotics, such as nitrofurantoin, and heart medications, such as amiodarone, has also been found to harm lung tissue and may result in pulmonary fibrosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Lung damage is more likely to occur when these medications are used on a long-term basis.