About Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
It's not clear what causes IPF. The condition usually affects people around 70-75 years of age. It is rare in people under 50.
Treatment is available which can help reduce the rate at which IPF gets worse. Treatment can also be provided to help manage the symptoms of IPF. Currently there is no treatment that can stop or reverse the scarring of the lungs.
Symptoms of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
The symptoms of IPF tend to develop gradually and get slowly worse over time.
Symptoms can include:
- shortness of breath
- a persistent dry cough
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- rounded and swollen fingertips (clubbed fingers)
Many people ignore their breathlessness at first and blame it on getting old or being out of shape. But eventually even light activity such as getting dressed can cause shortness of breath.
When to get medical advice
You should see your GP if you've struggled with your breathing for a while or have had a cough for more than three weeks.
These symptoms aren't normal and shouldn't be ignored.
If your GP thinks you could have a lung condition such as IPF, they can refer you to a hospital specialist for tests such as:
- breathing (lung function) tests
- blood tests
- a chest X-ray and computerised tomography (CT) scan
- a lung biopsy (where a small piece of lung tissue is removed during keyhole surgery so it can be analysed)
Causes of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
In people with IPF, the tiny air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) become damaged and increasingly scarred. This causes the lungs to become stiff. This means it's difficult for oxygen to get into the blood.
The reason this happens isn't clear. "Idiopathic" means the cause is unknown.
IPF has been linked to:
- exposure to certain types of dust, such as metal or wood dust
- viral infections
- a family history of IPF – around 1 in 20 people with IPF has another family member with the condition
- gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD)
But it's not known whether some of these factors directly cause IPF.
Treatments for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
There's currently no cure for IPF. But there are several treatments that can help relieve the symptoms and slow down its progression. The health professional looking after your care will discuss treatment options with you.
- self-care measures – such as stopping smoking, eating healthily and exercising regularly
- medication to reduce the rate at which scarring worsens
- breathing oxygen through a mask – you can do this while you're at home and/or while you're out and about
- pulmonary rehabilitation – exercises and advice to help you breathe more easily
- a lung transplant – this is suitable in a few cases, although donor lungs are rare
Outlook for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
IPF gets worse over time, although the speed at which this happens is highly variable.
Some people respond well to treatment. They will stay almost completely free of symptoms for many years. Others may get rapidly worse or find the breathlessness debilitating.
It's very difficult to predict how long someone with IPF will survive at the time of diagnosis. Regular monitoring over time can show whether it's getting worse quickly or slowly.
Before the availability of specific treatments about half of people with IPF lived at least three years from their diagnosis. Around 1 in 5 survived for more than five years.
It's hoped these figures will be improved by the availability of new treatments to slow the disease's progression.