The role of inflammation in breathing difficulties

02 Apr 24

The role of inflammation in breathing difficulties

Inflammation can lead to significant breathing difficulties, especially in patients already suffering from conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or respiratory infections. The role of inflammation in breathing difficulties is the subject of several studies, with particular regard to long-term effects.

Let’s explore this topic in more depth.

Causes of lung inflammation

An inflammation of lung tissue is called a pneumonitis, which is a general term referring to different types of conditions. This includes pneumonia, an infection that inflames the air sacs in the lungs. Lung inflammation can be triggered by several causes, the most common being the following.

Airborne irritants

Several airborne irritants have been linked to inflammation of the respiratory tract:

  • Molds and bacteria. Constant or repeated exposure to molds and some kinds of bacteria can lead to lung inflammation. In particular, specific varieties of mold that can cause inflammation can be found in hot tubs or humidifiers, which is why it is always advisable to keep bathrooms and filters clean.
  • Animal substances. Farmers or breeders, and poultry workers in particular, are often exposed to feathers, droppings and other avian substances that can lead to inflammation.
  • Pesticides. Aerosolized mists commonly used for farming operations pose a specific risk to workers.

Response to infection

Infections of the respiratory tract can trigger inflammation as an immune response to invading pathogens. Common symptoms are coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.

Specific drugs and treatments

A variety of drugs and medical practices can lead to lung inflammation as a side effect. Some of them include antibiotics, heart medications, or even aspirin if used in excessive amounts.

Some patients may also experience lung inflammation in response to chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Role of inflammation in breathing difficulties

Shortness of breath is usually the most common symptom of inflammation when it comes to respiratory patterns. There are several ways in which inflammation can lead to or exacerbate breathing difficulties, the most common being the following:

  • Airway narrowing. In patients suffering from chronic lung conditions, such as asthma and COPD, inflammation narrows the airways as a consequence of swelling, making it difficult for air to flow in and out of the lungs.
  • Excessive mucus production. Increased production of mucus in the airways is a common consequence of inflammation. The role of inflammation in breathing difficulties is quite obvious here: the excess mucus can further block the airways, making breathing even harder.
  • Bronchoconstriction. Due to the action of inflammatory substances, the muscles surrounding the airways may tighten, reducing the passage diameters for air to move through.
  • Increased sensitivity. Inflamed airways are usually more sensitive to various triggers, leading to exaggerated responses to otherwise non-problematic stimuli. Higher sensitivity can result in sudden and severe breathing difficulties, such as asthma attacks.

Long-term complications of lung inflammation

Milder cases of lung inflammation may last from a few days to some months, usually until the issue is detected and properly treated. However, when lung inflammation goes unnoticed or untreated for too long, it can have an impact on lung plasticity and lead to severe complications such as irreversible lung damage.

In non-inflamed lungs, the air sacs stretch and relax as a result of each breath. When inflamed, the thin tissue lining the air sacs can cause scarring, making the sacs less flexible and stiff, and leading to a condition known as pulmonary fibrosis. Severe cases of pulmonary fibrosis can cause heart and respiratory failure or even death.

Treatment of lung inflammation

Although prevention is the best way to go in order to avoid complications from airway or lung inflammation, there are a number of medications that are commonly used to treat the condition:

  • Corticosteroids or immunosuppressants, like prednisone, mycophenolate or azathioprine, may help reduce lung inflammation.
  • Antifibrotics, such as pirfenidone or nintedanib, help slow down the formation of scar tissue in your lungs.

Other solutions include pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy or, in severe cases, lung transplant.

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