HealthSheets™


Interstitial Lung Disease

Interstitial lung disease is a group of conditions that cause inflammation and scarring around the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. The changes make it hard to take in oxygen.

Front view of male head and torso showing respiratory system.
The diaphragm is a muscle below the lungs. It flattens to draw air in as you inhale, then rises as you exhale.

Inside your lungs

When you breathe, air travels in and out of your lungs through the windpipe (trachea), airways (bronchi), and branching airways (bronchioles). Oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are exchanged in the tiny air sacs (alveoli). Oxygen passes from the alveoli to the blood vessels through the tissue called interstitium. The blood vessels then carry oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body. Carbon dioxide moves back from the blood vessels to the alveoli. You then breathe it out.

Bronchiole and alveolar sac with blood supply showing oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange.
Alveoli are air sacs at the ends of bronchioles.
Bronchiole and alveolar sac with blood supply showing oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange.
Damaged alveoli supply less oxygen to the body.

How lungs become damaged

With interstitial lung disease, the lungs have inflammation and scarring around the alveoli. The changes make it hard to take in oxygen.

Closeup view of interstitial tissue in lung showing gas exchange between alveolus and capillary.  Closeup view of interstitial tissue in lung showing impaired gas exchange between alveolus and capillary because of interstitial lung disease.

Causes of interstitial lung disease

In most cases, interstitial lung disease has no known cause. Some known causes include:

  • Dust from asbestos or silica, gases, fumes, or poisons

  • Some medicines

  • Radiation therapy

  • Certain lung infections

  • Connective tissue disease. These include scleroderma, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Treatment and healthcare providers for interstitial lung disease

Treatment may include medicine, breathing techniques, exercise, and stress management. In some cases, you may need a lung transplant. Your healthcare team may include:

  • Primary care provider. This could be your family doctor or internist.

  • Pulmonologist. This is doctor who specializes in treating lung problems.

  • Respiratory therapist. This person gives treatment and support for people with lung disease.

  • Social worker. This person helps with your daily needs and family life, accessing community resources, counseling services, and stress management.

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