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What Is Alveolitis?

Acute or chronic lung inflammation is called alveolitis.
The scarring and inflammation in alevoli tissue can be revealed with an x-ray scan.
Asbestos exposure can damage alveoli.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 12 July 2014
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Alveolitis is a general medical term for a case of acute or chronic lung inflammation. It occurs when the inner linings of air sacs in the lungs called alveoli become irritated and damaged. Resulting symptoms may include shortness of breath, coughing, and fatigue that worsen over time. It is important to seek early diagnosis and treatment at the first signs of lung disease to prevent major complications, such as permanent scarring or sudden respiratory failure. Treatment for alveolitis may involve taking medications, making healthy lifestyle changes, or undergoing surgery.

The lungs are filled with millions of tiny sacs called alveoli that supply new blood with fresh oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from old blood. In the case of alveolitis, the sacs are inflamed and stop expanding and contracting properly. Over time, inflammation can leave alveoli permanently scarred and completely unable to function. There are many different known causes of alveolitis, including severe viral infections, frequent respiratory illnesses, radiation therapy, and autoimmune disorders. Alveoli can also be damaged when a person breathes in harmful irritants, such as asbestos debris, silica dust, or metal shavings.

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Most cases of alveolitis are chronic, meaning that physical changes to the lungs happen slowly over the course of several months or years and progressively worsen. A person in the early stage of the disorder may have mild symptoms, such as trouble breathing deeply and catching his or her breath after a bout of physical activity. An individual may start to cough, wheeze, and have occasional chest pains. Untreated alveolitis can severely limit the available oxygen in the lungs and cause blue skin and lips, mental confusion, and possibly unconsciousness. Late stage lung disease can quickly become fatal if immediate care is not sought.

A doctor can usually diagnose alveolitis in the early stages by taking imaging scans of the lungs. X-rays and computerized tomography scans can reveal the extent of inflammation and scarring in alveoli tissue. In addition to confirming the presence of the disorder, the doctor typically performs physical tests to see how well the lungs are working. The stage of disease and the severity of breathing problems help to determine the appropriate course of treatment.

Many cases of alveolitis are initially treated with anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids that may be inhaled or taken orally. Patients are instructed to get more exercise, eat healthy, avoid smoking, and wear filter masks if they plan on working around irritants. A person who experiences major complications may need to receive oxygen therapy and endure a long stay in the hospital for careful monitoring. If all other options fail to provide relief, a lung transplant can be considered.

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