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Radiation Pneumonitis - Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery

Updated on March 2, 2015
an X-Ray of a healthy lung
an X-Ray of a healthy lung | Source

Introduction

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

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, including:

  • What causes the condition?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • Other facts about radiation pneumonitis
  • How is it treated?

What causes the condition?

Because radiation also affects normal cells as well as cancerous ones, they 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 itself while a patient is receiving radiotherapy, and typically manifests a few weeks or several months after the radiotherapy is completed.

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

The condition can occur as a side-effect of radiation therapy for cancer
The condition can occur as a side-effect of radiation therapy for cancer | Source

What are the symptoms?

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.

The condition can be treated quickly and effectively
The condition can be treated quickly and effectively | Source

Other facts about radiation pneumonitis

  • The condition occurs in around 5% to 15% of patients that 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.
  • Providing 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 radiation therapy has been completed, depending on the strength (dosage) of radiation therapy used during treatment 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 ill effects.

Managing Pulmonary Complications: Therapy and Radiation-Induced Damage

How is it treated?

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 quickly and 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.

Pulmonary fibrosis can be an unwelcome consequence if radiation pneumonitis isn't treated
Pulmonary fibrosis can be an unwelcome consequence if radiation pneumonitis isn't treated | Source

Have you had radiation treatment or pneumonitis?

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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.

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