Idiopathic Infiltrative Lung Diseases

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Idiopathic Infiltrative Lung Diseases


The term idiopathic means "cause unknown." The idiopathic infiltrative lung diseases, also known as interstitial lung diseases, are a group of more than a hundred disorders seen in both adults and (less often) in children, whose cause is unknown but which tend to spread, or "infiltrate" through much or all of the lung tissue. They range from mild conditions that respond well to treatment, to progressive, nonresponsive disease states that severely limit lung function and may cause death.


The body produces inflammatory cells in response to a variety of conditions, including a number of different diseases, pollutants, certain infections, exposure to organic dust or toxic fumes and vapors, and various drugs and poisons. When white blood cells and tissue fluid rich in protein collect in the small air sacs of the lungs, or alveoli, the sacs become inflamed (alveolitis). In time, the fluid may solidify and cause scar formation that replaces the normal lung tissue. This process is known as pulmonary fibrosis. In about half of all patients, no specific cause is ever found; they are said to have idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Some patients have special types of interstitial lung disease that may occur in certain types of patients, or feature typical pathological changes when a sample of lung tissue is examined under a microscope. They include:

  • Usual interstitial pneumonitis. Disease occurs in a patchy form throughout the lungs. Parts of the lungs can appear normal while others have dense scar tissue and lung cysts, often the end result of pulmonary fibrosis. This disease progresses quite slowly. Both children and adults may be affected.
  • Desquamative interstitial pneumonitis. Similarappearing lesions are present throughout the lungs. Both inflammatory cells and cells that have separated from the air sac linings ("desquamated") are present. Some researchers believe this is an early form of usual interstitial pneumonitis.
  • Lymphocytic interstitial pneumonitis. Most of the cells infiltrating the lungs are the type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Both the breathing tubes (bronchi) and blood vessels of the lungs become thickened. In children, this condition tends to occur when the immune system is not operating properly as occurs with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Causes and symptoms

By definition, the causes of idiopathic infiltrative lung diseases are not known. Some forms of pulmonary fibrosis, however, do have specific causes and these may provide a clue as to what may cause idiopathic diseases. Known causes of pulmonary fibrosis include diseases that impair the body's immune function; infection by viruses and the bacterium causing tuberculosis ; and exposure to such mineral dusts as silica or asbestos, or such organic materials as bird droppings. Other cases of pulmonary fibrosis result from exposure to fumes and vapors, radiation (in industry or medically), and certain drugs used to treat disease.

Patients with interstitial lung disease usually have labored breathing when exerting themselves. Often they cough and feel overly tired ("no stamina"). Wheezing is uncommon. When the physician listens to the patient's chest with a stethoscope, dry, crackling sounds may be heard. Some patients have vague chest pain. When disease progresses, the patient may breathe very rapidly, have mottled blue skin (because of getting too little oxygen), and lose weight. The fingertips may appear thick or club-shaped.


Both scars in the lung and cysts (air-filled spaces) can be seen on a chest x ray. Up to 10% of patients, however, may have normal x rays even if their symptoms are severe. A special type of x ray, high-resolution computed tomography scan (CT scan), often is helpful in adult patients. Tests of lung function will show that the lungs cannot hold enough air with each breath, and there is too little oxygen in the blood, especially after exercising. In a procedure called bronchoalveolar lavage, a tube is placed through the nose and windpipe into the bronchi and a small amount of saline is released and then withdrawn. This fluid can then be analyzed for cells. A tiny piece of lung tissue can be sampled using the same instrument. If necessary, a larger sample (a biopsy) is taken through an incision in the chest wall and examined under a microscope.


The first medication given, providing scarring is not too extensive, is usually a steroid drug such as prednisone. An occasional patient will improve dramatically if steroid therapy stops the inflammation. Most patients, however, improve to a limited extent. It may take 6-12 weeks for a patient to begin to respond. Patients must be watched closely for a gain in body weight, high blood pressure, and depression. Steroids can also result in diabetes, ulcer disease, and cataract. Patients treated with steroids are at risk of contracting serious infection. If steroids have not proved effective or have caused serious side effects, other anti-inflammatory drugs, such as cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) or azathioprine (Imuran), can be tried. Cytoxan sometimes is combined with a steroid, but it carries its own risks, which include bladder inflammation and suppression of the bone marrow. Some patients will benefit from a bronchodilator drug that relaxes the airway and makes breathing easier.

Some patients with interstitial lung disease, especially children, will need oxygen therapy. Usually oxygen is given during sleep or exercise, but if the blood oxygen level is very low it may be given constantly. A program of conditioning, training in how to breathe efficiently, energy-saving tips, and a proper diet will help patients achieve the highest possible level of function given the state of their illness. All patients should be vaccinated each year against influenza. A last resort for those with very advanced disease who do not respond to medication is lung transplantation. This operation is being done more widely, and it is even possible to replace both lungs.


A scoring system based on lung function and x ray appearances has been designed to help monitor a patient's course. In general, idiopathic forms of interstitial lung disease cause a good deal of illness, and a significant number of deaths. A majority of patients get worse over time, although survival for many years is certainly possible. An estimated one in five affected children fail to survive. In different series, survival times average between four and ten years. Early diagnosis gives the best chance of a patient recovering or at least stabilizing. Once the lungs are badly scarred, nothing short of lung transplantation offers hope of restoring lung function. Patients with desquamative interstitial pneumonitis tend to respond well to steroid treatment, and live longer than those with other types of infiltrative lung disease.


Bronchoalveolar lavage A way of obtaining a sample of fluid from the airways by inserting a flexible tube through the windpipe. Used to diagnose the type of lung disease.

Desquamation Shedding of the cells lining the insides of the air sacs. A feature of desquamative interstitial pneumonitis.

Idiopathic A disease whose cause is unknown.

Immune system A set of body chemicals and specialized cells that attack an invading agent (such as a virus) by forming antibodies that can engulf and destroy it.

Infiltrative A process whereby inflammatory or other types of disease spread throughout an organ such as the lungs.

Interstitial Refers to the connective tissue that supports the "working parts" of an organ, in the case of the lungs the air sacs.

Pulmonary fibrosis A scarring process that is the end result of many forms of long-lasting lung disease.


Since we do not understand what causes idiopathic interstitial lung diseases, there is no way to prevent them. What can be done is to prevent extensive scarring of the lungs by making the diagnosis shortly after the first symptoms develop, and trying steroids or other drugs in hope of suppressing lung inflammation. Every effort should be made to avoid exposure to dusts, gases, chemicals, and even pets. Keeping fit and learning how to breathe efficiently will help maintain lung function as long as possible.



American Lung Association. 1740 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. (800) 586-4872.