Radiation pneumonitis: Symptoms, facts, treatment, and recovery

Radiation pneumonitis: Symptoms, facts, treatment, and recovery

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Radiation pneumonitis is an inflammation of the lungs that can occur following radiotherapy of the chest area for cancer. In this article, we explore how and why radiation pneumonitis occurs, the symptoms of the condition, how it can be treated and other useful facts for sufferers.

Radiation pneumonitis is a type of radiation-induced lung injury, which can result from radiation treatment (radiotherapy) of the chest area. Radiation treatment is used to reduce and eliminate cancer tumors in the chest, breast, lungs or other organs.

Because radiation also affects normal cells as well as cancerous ones, the normal cells can become inflamed. When this happens to cells in the lungs, they can produce fluid which leads to radiation pneumonitis. This condition does not often present while a patient is receiving radiotherapy, but typically manifests a few weeks or several months after the radiotherapy is completed.

Patients with radiation pneumonitis may not feel unwell or show any outward symptoms, and the pneumonitis is often diagnosed by chest x-rays taken to identify if the cancer has been removed.

Symptoms of radiation pneumonitis

Symptoms of the condition typically include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially after physical activity.

  • Difficulty breathing or pain in the chest area.

  • Fever and raised temperature.

  • Coughing.

Other facts about radiation pneumonitis

The condition occurs in around 5% to 15% of patients who have radiation treatment of the chest area.

Radiation pneumonitis is most common after treatment for lung cancer, although it can also present following radiotherapy for lymphomas, breast cancer or other thoracic cancers.

  • It is often identified by an increase in white blood cell count.

  • Symptoms could occur as much as one to six months following radiotherapy.

  • The likelihood and severity of the condition depends partly on the amount of radiation used and the areas affected by the initial radiotherapy treatment.

  • Provided radiation pneumonitis is diagnosed and treated quickly, most patients will fully recover from the condition.

Symptoms normally arise between one and six months after the completion of radiation therapy, depending on the strength (dosage) of radiation therapy used and how widespread the treatment was. As long as radiation pneumonitis is treated quickly, most people can make a full recovery with no long-term effects.

Treatment of radiation pneumonitis

The condition is treated through medication, normally steroids or other medications that reduce inflammation; this includes cortisone drugs such as prednisone. The condition can normally be treated effectively. If left untreated, the condition can develop into pulmonary fibrosis, which is a permanent scarring of the lungs. If this occurs, a patient's lung capacity can be severely diminished.

In closing

If you have had to undergo radiotherapy treatment, pay close attention to any possible symptoms of radiation pneumonitis. If you start to experience symptoms, speak to your specialist as soon as possible; with early diagnosis and treatment you can make a full recovery.

Content originally written by Paul Maplesden, a freelance writer, and edited by me.

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