What is Rheumatoid Lung Disease?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2019
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Rheumatoid lung disease is a common complication of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that also causes joint pain and inflammation. Arthritis-related lung disorders do not always cause noticeable symptoms or long-term health problems, though it is possible to experience breathing difficulties, coughing, and chest pains. An untreated case of rheumatoid lung disease can result in a collapsed lung and high blood pressure. There is no proven cure for rheumatoid arthritis or resulting lung problems, but prescription medications can usually provide symptom relief and lessen the chances of severe complications.

Doctors do not fully understand the causes of rheumatoid lung disease or the underlying autoimmune disorder. Medical research shows that people who have a family history of arthritis and lung problems are at a much higher risk of developing the condition. Rheumatoid lung disease can afflict a person of any age, though it is most commonly seen in women older than the age of 40.


The immune system of a person with rheumatoid arthritis releases chemicals that cause inflammation in joint tissue. The result is frequent or chronic joint pain, swelling, fever, and fatigue. Rheumatoid lung disease occurs when the immune system's response targets the lining of the lungs as well as the joints. A dry cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, and sharp pains in the chest arise and worsen as the condition progresses. Lung inflammation can lead to a number of serious problems, including pneumonia, dangerously high blood pressure, airway constriction, and lung collapse.

A person who experiences symptoms of rheumatoid lung disease should visit his or her doctor to receive an accurate diagnosis and learn about treatment options. Early diagnosis is important since the condition becomes much more difficult to manage once it causes significant lung inflammation and scarring. A doctor can take x-rays and computerized tomography scans to determine the location and extent of lung tissue damage. The physician may also extract a small sample of fluid and tissue from the lining of a lung to confirm that an autoimmune disorder is the true cause of symptoms.

Mild cases of rheumatoid lung disease do not typically require aggressive treatment. A doctor may decide to initiate or adjust the course of medications taken for rheumatoid arthritis. Corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs are often used to reduce the immune system's response, thereby lessening inflammation in the lungs and joints. If a lung collapses or blood pressure drastically increases, a patient needs to be brought to an emergency room for immediate oxygen therapy and intensive medical care.


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