Pneumonitis symptoms, causes and treatment

Pneumonitis is an inflammatory condition in the lungs, and pneumonia is a type of pneumonitis. But with pneumonia, the nature of the illness is an infection that is caused by bacteria and other types of germs. While pneumonitis is an allergic reaction that occurs when substances such as bacteria or mold cause irritation to the air sacs in the lungs. Those who are sensitive to these will most likely have a reaction. 

Table of Medications

  • prednisone
  • Augmentin
  • clindamycin
  • amoxicillin / clavulanate
  • metronidazole
  • Flagyl
  • Prevacid
  • Cleocin
  • Zosyn
  • dexamethasone

Overview

Another term for pneumonitis is hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Though this condition is treatable, it tends to result in permanent scarring and damage the lungs if not detected early.

Symptoms

When you breathe in the substance such as bacteria or mold, the first symptoms will be experienced within 4 to 6 hours. This condition is known as acute pneumonitis, and it will give you flu-like symptoms such as:

The symptoms should go away after a few days if you do not get exposed again to the substances, but if your exposure is constant, you may develop a condition called chronic pneumonitis. This type of condition is more long term.

Chronic pneumonitis has the following symptoms:

  • Tightness in the chest
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Appetite loss
  • Tiredness
  • Shortness of breath

Causes of Pneumonitis

Pneumonitis may occur if the substances that you inhale irritate the small air sacs in your lungs called alveoli. Exposure to these certain substances affects the immune system and leads to the inflammation of the lungs and causing fever. What happens is that the air sacs will be filled with white blood cells or fluid, and when there is inflammation, the oxygen will have a hard time passing through the alveoli to reach the bloodstream. 

Substances that can trigger pneumonitis are:

  • Chemicals
  • Bacteria
  • Mold
  • Fungi

These substances can be found in:

  • Humidifiers
  • Animal fur
  • Hot tubs
  • Bird feathers or droppings
  • Wood dust
  • Contaminated cheese, grapes, barley, and other food

Pneumonitis may also be caused by other factors such as certain types of medicines like antibiotics, heart rhythm medicines, or chemotherapy drugs; or may also be caused by radiation treatment to the chest.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you think that you are having symptoms for pneumonitis, it is best to see your healthcare provider or a pulmonologist who is a specialist that treats diseases associated with the lungs. Consult with your doctor to verify if you have the condition so that if you do, you can be treated immediately and avoid further complications.

Expect your doctor to ask you about what substances you may have been exposed to, whether at home or work, then some medical exams might be ordered to be performed. The doctor will also listen to your lungs using a stethoscope to check if there are crackling sounds or unusual sounds in your lungs.

If pneumonitis is confirmed, one or more of these tests may be performed:

  • Lung biopsy involves the removal of a sample tissue from the lung. This is done while the patient is under general anesthesia, and the tissue sample taken is tested for inflammation and scarring.
  • Oximetry is about placing a device on your finger, which measures the amount of oxygen that is present in your blood.
  • Bronchoscopy is when a thin, flexible tube with a camera on one end is placed into your lungs to remove cells. These cells will then be evaluated. The doctor may also do another procedure called lavage, which involves using water to flush out cells out of your lungs.
  • Blood tests may also be done so that the doctor will be able to determine the antibodies in your blood against dust, mold, or other substances. This test can reveal if your immune system is also having some reaction as well.
  • Spirometry is a process by which the force of the airflow when you breathe in and out is measured.
  • Chest X-ray will give an image of the lungs so your doctor can assess if there is scarring or damage in the lungs.
  • CT scan will provide a more detailed image of the lungs than what a regular X-ray can give. It will be able to produce images of the lungs from several different angles.

Treatment for Pneumonitis

Avoiding the substance that triggered your symptoms is the best way to relieve yourself from it. If the circumstance can be changed or avoided, it would be the best solution, such as, for example, at work, you are dealing with molds or bird feathers or any of the mentioned substances, then you need to either wear a mask or change your job.

Some treatments can relieve the symptoms of pneumonitis, but they are not intended to cure the condition. Some of these treatments include:

  • Oxygen therapy- this is recommended if you are experiencing shortness of breath. You will be able to breathe in oxygen through prongs in your nose or a mask.
  • Corticosteroids like Prednisone, and other steroid drugs that will reduce the inflammation in the lungs. These types of medications though may have some side effects such as having an increased risk for infections, osteoporosis, weight gain or cataracts.

Detecting pneumonitis at an early stage is crucial to prevent complications because if the lung is damaged severely, the result may lead you to an extreme option, which is a lung transplant. If this happens, you will need to wait for an organ donor match. 

What are the normal conditions

There is no vaccine for pneumonitis, so its way of prevention is by avoiding the potential irritants that may trigger the disease. Unlike pneumonia, which has available preventative vaccines. 

Airborne irritants may be avoided by regularly cleaning and checking your heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units. And it would be best if you are aware of your allergies as well as the possible allergens so that you can avoid them or approach them with caution, thus reducing the risk of contracting pneumonitis.

Risks of Having

While it is advised that we avoid the potential irritants that may cause symptoms of pneumonitis, there are instances when avoidance is not that easy. It is most especially true when you work in an industry that exposes you to any of the mentioned substances. 

Being in an industry or an environment where you will be exposed to the irritating substances increases your risk of having pneumonitis. One example is farmers. They are at high risk of having what is called a farmer’s lung, which is a term used if farmers are affected with pneumonitis. This happens because they deal with grains, straws, and hays every day, and these contain mold, a substance that can irritate the lungs.

We should also be careful of mold that grows in hot tubs, air conditioners, humidifiers, and heating systems as they may affect the lungs and result in inflammation. Developing pneumonitis due to this cause is called hot lung or humidifier lung.

Some professions that put people at risk in developing pneumonitis are the following:

  • Electronics
  • Bird and poultry handlers
  • Plastic manufacturers
  • Veterinary workers
  • Winemakers
  • Animal breeders
  • Woodworkers
  • Grain and flour processors
  • Lumber miller

Irritating substances are present in these jobs, and those dealing with the substances daily are at higher risk to contract symptoms for pneumonitis, especially if they have an allergy to a particular substance.

But even if you do not belong to any of these types of industries or profession, does not mean that you cannot be exposed to mold or any other irritant as they may also be present in your home. And in the same way, it also does not mean that once you are exposed to any of these irritating substances that you will surely get this condition. Not many people who get exposed to the substances develop pneumonitis.

Another factor that may influence having pneumonitis is if you have a family history of this condition. If you have family members who have it, then you are at a higher risk of getting it as well. 

Getting this condition may occur at any age, so children may also potentially experience this. But it is more commonly diagnosed for those who are 50 to 55 years old. Cancer treatments are another reason for increasing the risk of having pneumonitis, so those who are taking chemotherapy drugs or are getting radiation to the chest are at an increased risk.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Since pneumonitis is a type of condition that leads to permanent damage in the lungs if not treated early, it is highly recommended that as soon as you develop any symptoms related to this, see your healthcare provider right away.  

It is best to see your doctor as soon as possible before the signs become severe, and self- care is no longer possible. Seek medical help the moment you feel that you have flu-like symptoms or if you have signs of water in the lungs.

Also, if the factors causing the symptoms cannot be adjusted, ask your doctor’s advice for alternative treatments.

Table of Medications

  • prednisone
  • Augmentin
  • clindamycin
  • amoxicillin / clavulanate
  • metronidazole
  • Flagyl
  • PrevacidOFF LABEL
  • Cleocin
  • Zosyn
  • dexamethasone