Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) causes long-term, ongoing (chronic) symptoms that can become progressively worse. This is usually a gradual process over the course of several months or years.

However, a rapid onset of severe symptoms could mean you’re having an IPF flare-up. This is also called an acute exacerbation. According to the Mayo Clinic, acute symptoms of pulmonary fibrosis can last for days or weeks at a time.

It’s important to know the signs of an acute exacerbation and what you can do about it ahead of time. Read on to learn more about how you can manage your IPF during a flare-up.

Shortness of breath is the first and most obvious sign of IPF. If you’re experiencing a flare-up, you may notice some changes with your breathing first. If you haven’t had shortness of breath during sleep or other times of rest, you might experience it now. Your overall breathing might be more difficult during your everyday activities too. Coughing can also worsen during an IPF flare-up.

Other IPF symptoms can occur more gradually as the disease progresses. But during a flare-up, you might experience the following symptoms more than usual:

  • fatigue
  • aches and pains
  • lack of appetite
  • stress

It’s important not to compare your own IPF symptoms with someone else’s. Everyone is different. As a rule of thumb, you might be having a flare-up if your symptoms suddenly get worse and are more severe.

Your doctor may prescribe additional medications during a flare-up. While none of these treat IPF flares, some can reduce the frequency of exacerbations. The main care for IPF is supportive, which helps provide relief from your symptoms and makes you more comfortable.

Treatments may include:

  • antibiotics to treat potential infections
  • cough suppressants
  • antifibrotics
  • oxygen therapy

You shouldn’t take any medications without your doctor’s consent, even over-the-counter drugs.

Your lungs don’t take in as much oxygen during an IPF flare-up. Not only does this make breathing that much more difficult, but it can affect the rest of your body too. Your bloodstream won’t take in as much oxygen to make red blood cells, and it won’t be able to deliver oxygen to other organs like your brain.

This is where oxygen therapy can help. According to the American Lung Association, most people with pulmonary fibrosis will eventually need oxygen therapy. By supplementing your oxygen intake, you can make sure that your body gets the right amount to keep your organs functioning properly. It will help give you more energy too.

If you already take oxygen for IPF, you may need to increase the amount that you use during a flare-up. This could mean using oxygen therapy at night in addition to during your daytime activities.

Rest is crucial during an IFP flare-up. You’ll likely feel more fatigued than usual because you’re not getting as much oxygen. The Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation recommends eight hours of sleep per night, at minimum. Not only will you feel more rested, but the right amount of sleep can also help keep your immune system in check.

IPF can make staying active seem impossible, especially during a flare-up. But you shouldn’t give up on your activities entirely. Staying active helps increase your full-body endurance — including that of your lungs. There’s also the added benefit of boosted serotonin to help ward off feelings of stress or sadness.

Still, you may need to take your activity levels down a notch during a flare-up. This could mean taking things slowly overall or reducing your exercise intensity. If you’re currently in pulmonary rehabilitation, talk to your team about your flare-up and what activities may be off limits.

With IPF, it’s crucial to notify your doctor of any changes that occur. This includes symptom changes and any adjustments to your management plan.

Also, let your doctor know if you think you’re having a flare-up. They may want to see you in their office for additional tests and to adjust your treatment, if needed.