Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Pulmonary fibrosis

4-minute read

What is pulmonary fibrosis?

Pulmonary fibrosis is a lung disease where the lace-like tissue around the air sacs of the lungs — known as alveoli — becomes damaged, thickened and scarred. As the lungs scar and stiffen, breathing becomes more difficult and not enough oxygen is able to enter the bloodstream.

What are the symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis?

The symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis may include:

  • being short of breath — at first only when active, but then later when you are just resting
  • a dry, hacking cough that does not go away
  • being tired
  • losing weight
  • losing your appetite
  • having bulging finger or toe tips, known as clubbing
  • aching joints and muscles

Unless something can be done to treat the underlying cause, pulmonary fibrosis tends to get worse.

What causes pulmonary fibrosis?

Most often, the cause of pulmonary fibrosis is not known. If this is the case, it is called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (idiopathic means the cause is unknown).

In some people, a cause can be found. Such causes include:

  • some medicines used in radiotherapy treatment or to treat seizures, heart problems or infections
  • breathing in harmful dust or chemicals at a workplace or in the environment, such as mould, asbestos, silica, metal dusts and toxic fumes
  • certain medications, such as chemotherapy medications and antibiotics, as well as recreational drugs
  • having an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or a disease of the connective tissue
  • having the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis

Risk factors for pulmonary fibrosis

You are more at risk than others of developing pulmonary fibrosis if you:

  • are over 60
  • smoke or used to smoke
  • live on a farm
  • work in the agriculture or livestock sector
  • work or live in an environment where you breathe in smoke or dust from wood, metal, stone or sand
  • have pulmonary fibrosis in the family

How is pulmonary fibrosis diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you might have pulmonary fibrosis, they will talk to you and examine you, and will ask about your work, smoking and anything else that could affect your lungs. They may order tests such as:

  • blood tests
  • x-rays
  • a CT scan or an MRI
  • lung function tests
  • a procedure to look inside your lungs (a bronchoscopy)
  • a lung biopsy, where a small sample of your lungs is removed to be examined in the laboratory

How is pulmonary fibrosis treated?

If you are diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, you will most likely be treated by a multidisciplinary team. Your treatment could include:

  • medications such as steroids to prevent permanent lung changes, prevent scarring, reduce inflammation or dampen down the body’s immune system
  • puffers or oxygen therapy to ease breathing
  • a lung transplant if the pulmonary fibrosis is severe

Many people benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, a program that includes exercise, information and advice to help manage breathlessness. These programs are run by a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or other allied health professional.

It is also important to see a psychologist or counsellor if you are feeling anxious or depressed.

Treating any underlying cause can help. For example, people with drug-induced pulmonary fibrosis should stop using the drug.

For people with severe pulmonary fibrosis, palliative care to control the symptoms can improve their quality of life.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2021

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

IPF (Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis) - St Vincent's Lung Health

A page explaining idiopathic pulmonary pulmonary fibrosis.

Read more on St Vincent's Hospital Lung Health website

Pulmonary Fibrosis Overview

Pulmonary Fibrosis (PF) is a type of rare lung disease that causes the tissue (interstitium) around the air sacs (alveoli) within the lungs to become thickened and scarred – this is called fibrosis.

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

What is lung disease? - Lung Foundation Australia

Learn more about the different types of lung disease, their symptoms, risk factors and lung function testing used to get a diagnosis.

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

Support and Palliative Care - Lung Foundation Australia

Support and Palliative Care Often when people hear the term ‘palliative care’, their first thought is end-of-life care

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

Living with silicosis - Lung Foundation Australia

The silicosis fact sheet contains information on silicosis, including how common it is, the types of silicosis, symptoms, management and treatment.

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.