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Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a progressive and serious lung disease. It causes lung tissue to thicken, stiffen, become more and more scarred. The lung scarring makes it progressively more difficult to breathe. New drugs can slow the rate of decline, but there’s currently no cure.

IPF occurs mainly in older adults and more commonly in men than women.

Idiopathic means that the cause is not known. Several studies have identified potential risks. These include:

  • genetic factors
  • viruses
  • lifestyle factors
  • environmental factors
  • several occupations

But there are still many unknowns about the disease and its progression. More research is needed.

A 2019 study suggests that having a family history of IPF is a strong risk factor for the disease and its earlier onset in later generations. This study found that in those with a family history of IPF, the disease progressed faster.

Researchers are looking at specific genes that may be involved and estimate that 35 to 40 percent of the risk in developing IPF is genetic. Though you cannot control genetic factors, there may be steps you can take to address other potential risks.

As with other lung diseases, cigarette smoking has a strong association with IPF, according to research, especially for people who’ve smoked more heavily and longer.

A small 2017 study found that current smokers developed IPF at a younger age than both nonsmokers and former smokers.

Research has shown that an additional risk factor with smoking is its association with shortening telomeres, the DNA structures that protect your cells. Shorter telomeres are linked to age-related diseases. IPF is one of the diseases associated with shorter telomeres in your lungs and blood. Exactly how this works is still not fully understood.

People who have a history of smoking can also develop COPD, which is a group of progressive lung diseases that can be associated with pulmonary fibrosis.

If you smoke, consider quitting. If you need assistance in quitting, talking with a doctor or specialist or joining a support group can be helpful in getting support and locating resources.

Studies have identified a significantly increased risk of IPF with exposure to inorganic and animal dust, and chemical fumes. This includes:

  • wood dust and use of wood fires
  • metal dusts, such as brass, lead, and steel
  • stone dust and stone polishes
  • smoke
  • vegetable dust
  • livestock dust
  • asbestos
  • bird droppings
  • pesticides
  • mold
  • soil dust

Some of the occupations or hobbies that involve dust and fume exposures are:

  • stone cutting and polishing
  • farming
  • raising birds
  • hairdressing
  • textile work
  • welding
  • painting
  • printing
  • woodworking
  • industrial car cleaning
  • technical dental work

In addition, smoking can increase the risk of IPF when you work in one of these professions.

If you work around dust and fumes, consider wearing a mask and trying to minimize your exposure times. You may also want to try to improve the ventilation in your work environment. At home, you can use an air purifier to remove fumes and dust.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends eating a nutrient-dense diet and exercising regularly for those with IPF to help improve and maintain their overall well-being and help prevent other conditions.

Eating health-promoting foods can be an important line of defense against disease.

Achieve a moderate weight

Consider adopting a heart-healthy diet and limiting your intake of fast foods, processed foods, red meat, and sugar. You can also check labels. Foods advertised as low fat can often be high in sugar.

Weight loss may also help reduce your risk of IPF. If you’re overweight or have obesity, a doctor may be able to suggest ways to reach and maintain a moderate weight.

There is an additional benefit of a nutrient-rich diet for IPF. Researchers have found that there’s an increased risk of IPF if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It’s not known exactly why this is the case, and the subject is still being studied. One theory is that people with GERD may breathe in tiny drops of stomach acid, which injures their lungs.

Diabetes, a chronic condition that affects how food is converted to energy and blood sugar levels, and IPF may also be correlated, but more research is needed to figure out how they’re related and if one has the potential to cause the other.

Having a high body mass index BMI and excess fat around the waist along with other factors may increase your risk of developing diabetes.

Regular physical activity

In addition to eating a nutritious diet, the NHLBI also recommends being physically active. Your doctor can help determine the appropriate level of exercise for you to maintain your strength and support your lung health. This may include walking, either indoors or outdoors, or riding a stationary bike.

Depending on your physical health, programs offered by community centers, gyms, and senior centers have programs that may also offer classes to help you stay active at any age and within any budget.

These can include:

  • yoga
  • aerobics
  • Zumba
  • tai chi
  • strength training
  • water aerobics

If you prefer exercising at home, videos to guide you may be available online or to purchase. Your local library may also have videos you can check out.

There are many other ways to support and maintain your lung power, such as yoga breathing techniques, singing, playing an instrument, dancing, bike riding, swimming, and other activities.

De-stress as much as possible. Stress can have a bad influence on your physical and mental well-being. Physical activity, even moderate activity, can help cut down on stress.

A key element of de-stressing is to be aware of what’s causing your stress. When you’re more aware of your stress triggers, you can begin to try to reduce or eliminate them.

If you’re stressed about a particular aspect of your life, you may consider joining a support group of people with similar concerns or talking with family, friends, and other supportive individuals about how they de-stress. You may also want to schedule an appointment with a counselor or therapist. They can help in dealing with stress.

Take time to relax. Figuring out what relaxes you and making some time each day for that activity can be helpful in reducing stress. Some of the things people use to relax and de-stress can include:

  • deep breathing
  • meditation
  • reading
  • listening to music
  • playing with a pet
  • sauna bathing
  • exercise

Sleep well and get a good night’s rest. If you have trouble getting to sleep, talk with your doctor about an appropriate remedy. Sometimes, the fix is simple, like shutting off your computer and phone an hour before bedtime or avoiding napping in the evenings.

Try to prevent infections. Researchers have linked an increased risk of IPF with several viruses, including Epstein-Barr, HIV, hepatitis C, and herpes virus 7 and 8.

To help prevent getting and transferring bacterial and viral infections:

  • stay up to date with recommended vaccinations, such as for the flu and COVID-19
  • be mindful of crowded indoor areas during flu and cold season
  • wash your hands frequently

Monitor the air quality in your home. Chemicals from the following sources can be a source of fumes that irritate your lungs:

  • household cleaners
  • paint
  • some cosmetic products
  • pesticides
  • car maintenance products

Try limiting exposure to these irritants as much as possible and wearing a filtered face mask when you must use them. If you use a wood-burning stove for heating or cooking, this can also produce irritating dust and fumes. An air purifier or vent fan may help reduce your exposure.

Researchers are not sure what causes IPF. It seems to be a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Reducing your exposure to dust and fumes can help prevent lung damage. Eating a nutrient-rich diet and staying physically active as much as possible can also help keep you and your lungs in good shape. If you smoke, consider quitting.