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What is interstitial lung disease?

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December 4, 2023

Learn about the types, symptoms, causes and treatments for ILD.

Interstitial lung disease, also called ILD, is a term used to describe a group of more than 200 different lung diseases. These diseases include inflammatory, fibrotic, inherited and more rare lung diseases. The most common symptoms are shortness of breath and cough. Doctors want to raise awareness about symptoms that warrant an evaluation.

“If you have shortness of breath or a cough that just won’t go away and that’s not explained by another cause, see your doctor,” said Dr. Lisa Lancaster, a pulmonologist and ILD program director at Vanderbilt Lung Institute.

Types of interstitial lung disease

Different categories exist under the large umbrella term of ILD, including conditions caused by autoimmune disease, inhalational injuries, rare lung disease and idiopathic varieties where the cause is unknown. This is a large and diverse group of different lung diseases. 

Interstitial lung disease symptoms

Shortness of breath, especially with activity, or a dry hacking cough are the two most common symptoms. Symptoms may progress slowly and may not be associated with pain. 

“If you have shortness of breath or a cough that just won’t go away and that’s not explained by another cause, see your doctor.”

These symptoms are vague and can be commonly seen in sudden, short-term illnesses, such as the common cold, flu, COVID-19 and more. However, if you have had these symptoms without another cause or they persist well beyond the normal course of illness, be sure to talk to your doctor about them, Lancaster said.

Your doctor may order chest imaging, such as a CT scan, and a breathing test, known as pulmonary function testing. Pulmonary function testing measures your lung capacity and efficiency.

Treatment for interstitial lung disease

If you are diagnosed with ILD, the treatment you receive will be unique to the specific type of ILD you have. “In general, there is a multi-modality approach to treating interstitial lung disease,” Lancaster said. “That can include medication therapy appropriate to your diagnosis, management of common associated conditions, pulmonary rehab, oxygen, treating infections promptly, and consideration of clinical trials.”

Your physician will follow you closely to monitor for other conditions associated with ILD and to treat them appropriately. These include pulmonary hypertension, sleep apnea and reflux disease, among others.

“We also follow patients very closely who have more advanced or progressive disease for timing and consideration of lung transplant referral,” Lancaster added. “We support patients with more advanced disease helping them to better manage their symptoms through palliative care and end-of-life management strategies through hospice focusing on each individual’s goals of care.”

interstitial lung disease

Expert help for ILD

Vanderbilt Health’s Interstitial Lung Disease Center is considered one of the premier programs in the U.S. for ILD research and care of patients with interstitial lung disease. The program has been involved with ILD clinical trials, both multi-center and individual center trials, since they started in the 1990s. Vanderbilt is an international leader in genetics research for patients with fibrotic lung disease and has been a leader in helping to design ILD clinical trials for two decades.

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