What is fibrosing alveolitis?

3 August 2016

Could a persistent cough be a sign of fibrosing alveolitis?

While it may have an unfamiliar name, fibrosing alveolitis is a condition that affects thousands of people in the UK, with around 5,000 new cases being diagnosed every year – and 5 million people internationally (1).

One of the reasons you may not have come across the term before now is that the condition is sometimes also known by these alternative names:

• Pulmonary fibrosis 

• Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis 

• Cryptogenic fibrosing alveolitis 

• Usual interstitial pneumonitis

Fibrosing alveolitis is an interstitial lung disease (or ILD for short). This is a group of conditions that affect the tissues that support the air sacs within the lungs, making it harder for them to take in the amount of oxygen the body needs.

When someone has fibrosing alveolitis, their lungs become thickened and scarred, which means that over time they have less elasticity – and this makes breathing difficult.

What are the symptoms and causes?

Fibrosing alveolitis symptoms include the following:

• Dry cough 

• Shortness of breath 

• Chest pains

Some of these symptoms – such as feeling short of breath – may not appear serious at first. In many cases people may put breathlessness down to being unfit from a lack of exercise, or assume that it’s just a part of growing older. If you have these symptoms, though, it’s really important to get them checked out – since they can progress over the course of time, making even simple activities more difficult.

The causes of fibrosing alveolitis may sometimes be associated with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus (2).   In some cases it may be associated with certain drug treatments used to treat cancer and heart disease (3), as well as some other conditions. However, in most cases the illness is not associated with another condition and its cause is unknown (4) – although medical experts believe that genetic and environmental factors may play a part.

Who is at risk of fibrosing alveolitis?

While the cause of the condition is unknown in the majority of cases (5), medical experts believe that a number of factors may increase someone’s risk of contacting fibrosing alveolitis. These include smoking, and long-term exposure to dust, for instance through working with wood or metal, or as a miner.

One striking characteristic of fibrosing alveolitis is that men are almost twice as likely as women to contract it (6). However, men are less likely than women to go for regular health check-ups. So, if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of fibrosing alveolitis mentioned above, then it really is important to get them checked out. A dry cough or shortness of breath may seem trivial – but don’t leave them unchecked. They could be a sign of something more serious.

Treating the condition

As yet, there’s no cure for fibrosing alveolitis. But the condition can be treated depending on how it affects the individual. This may involve medication as well as oxygen therapy which can help people with severe symptoms take in more oxygen than they would get normally. Treatment may also include lung rehabilitation, which includes physical and breathing exercises that help people to cope with their symptoms.

For more on lung conditions and their treatment plus support for people affected, the UK charities British Lung Foundation, Action for Pulmonary Fibrosis and Breathing Matters UK all offer a wide range of information.

Looking after your health – stopping smoking

It goes without saying that stopping smoking is a big step towards a healthier lifestyle.

Not only is smoking thought to increase the risk of fibrosing alveolitis, it is also associated with a long list of health risks that includes various forms of cancer as well as coronary heart disease and strokes.

And if the health risks associated with smoking have got you thinking about quitting, then why not sign up for a smoking cessation programme – and see how easy it can be to quit for good.


(1) http://www.breathingmatters.co.uk/2013/07/stark-facts-about-pulmonary-fibrosis/

(2) https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/idiopathic-pulmonary-fibrosis/

(3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415629/

(4) https://www.axappphealthcare.co.uk/Health-worries/General-health-worries/Pulmonary-fibrosis-(idiopathic)/

(5) http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pulmonary-fibrosis/symptoms-causes-and-risk.html

(6) http://www.breathingmatters.co.uk/2013/07/stark-facts-about-pulmonary-fibrosis/