Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that can affect not only your joints, but also other parts of the body. As the disease progresses, it can also affect your organs — including your lungs.

We’ll explore the possible ways RA can act on your lungs so that you can talk to your doctor about your treatment plan.

Interstitial lung disease (lung scarring) happens to about 1 in 10 people with RA, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

The scarring refers to damaged lung tissues, which can occur over time from RA-induced inflammation. As inflammation ensues, the body starts attacking lung cells, leading to this type of widespread damage.

Lung scarring may lead to breathing difficulties and related symptoms. These include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chronic dry cough
  • excessive fatigue
  • weakness
  • reduced appetite
  • unintentional weight loss

It’s likely that once you start experiencing symptoms, your lungs already have a significant amount of chronic inflammation.

However, the earlier you get diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment to ward off disease progression and prevent scarring. To make a diagnosis, your doctor will likely order lung function testing, as well as an X-ray or CT scan of the lungs.

The best approach to treating lung scarring from RA is to make sure your RA treatment is up to par. By treating the underlying inflammation effectively, there’s a higher chance that your healthy lung cells won’t be affected.

In some cases, oxygen therapy can help if you’re dealing with a lot of weakness and reduced quality of life. A lung transplant may be recommended for more severe cases as a last resort.

Without treatment, lung scarring can be life-threatening.

Nodules are solid, noncancerous masses that sometimes develop in the organs and other parts of the body. Having lung (pulmonary) nodules doesn’t mean you have lung cancer.

Lung nodules are small, so they aren’t very noticeable. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic estimates that nodules average 1.2 inches in diameter. They are also extremely common, regardless of whether RA is present.

Lung nodules don’t present any noticeable symptoms. They are often found while conducting imaging tests for other issues. A large mass or a mass with irregular edges may be a sign of lung cancer.

Lung nodules don’t require removal unless there is a suspicion of cancer.

As with lung scarring, the most effective way to prevent lung nodules caused by RA is to treat the underlying inflammation that’s bringing on these related issues.

Pleural disease (effusion) occurs when the pleura, or soft tissue (membrane) surrounding your lungs, becomes inflamed. Oftentimes, this type of lung inflammation occurs alongside fluid buildup between the lining around the lung tissue and the chest wall (known as the pleural space).

In minor cases, pleural disease isn’t severe enough to cause any symptoms. In fact, small fluid buildup may go away on its own. But if there’s a large enough buildup, you may start experiencing shortness of breath or pain upon breathing and need treatment.

Sometimes pleural disease can cause fever as well.

Large fluid buildup from pleural disease requires treatment to remove the excessive amounts of fluid. This is done with either a chest tube or a needle, which extracts the fluids from the pleural space.

Treatment may be repeated as necessary should pleural disease cause more fluid buildup in the future.

RA can also lead to inflammation within the small airways of your lungs. Over time, chronic inflammation in this area can cause thickening in these airways and lead to mucus blockages in your lungs. This is known as small airway obstruction.

Other signs of small airway obstruction can include dry cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

While RA treatments can prevent small airway obstruction, they don’t offer immediate relief from this lung condition. Talk to your doctor about rescue inhalers or bronchodilators that can help open up the airways and ensure smoother breathing.

While RA is a primary contributor, other risk factors can increase your chances of RA-related lung diseases. These include:

  • smoking
  • being male
  • being 50 to 60 years of age
  • having more active or undertreated RA

RA itself can shorten your life expectancy due to the complications from widespread inflammation.

According to the journal Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society, median life expectancy decreases by 10 to 11 years compared to those who don’t have RA if the disease isn’t effectively treated.

Complications from RA like lung disease are just one of the ways RA can decrease your overall life expectancy.

Lung diseases alone can reduce your life expectancy because they can prevent the supply of vital oxygen to the rest of your organs and body tissues. According to the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, lung disease ranks second only to heart disease of all RA-related causes of death.

Managing your RA is just one way you can decrease the risk of related lung diseases. You can also help keep your lungs healthy by quitting smoking, avoiding toxic chemicals and fumes, and exercising regularly.

It’s important to see your doctor for routine visits. However, you don’t want to wait for your regular visit if you’re experiencing new or unusual symptoms. See your doctor about potential lung disease from RA if you’re experiencing symptoms such as:

  • painful breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • breathing difficulties, especially after physical activity
  • chronic cough
  • increased weakness and fatigue
  • appetite changes
  • sudden weight loss
  • chronic fevers

The sooner your doctor knows about the symptoms you’re dealing with, the sooner they can diagnose and treat you for potential lung disease.

RA primarily affects the joints, but it can bring on other inflammatory problems throughout your body, including your lungs.

Having lung disease decreases your quality of life and may even shorten your life expectancy. Any breathing troubles should be addressed with your doctor immediately to prevent lung-related complications.