Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a progressive and serious lung disease. It causes lung tissue to become more and more scarred, thick, and stiff. The lung scarring makes it progressively more difficult to breathe. New drugs can slow the rate of decline, but there’s no cure as yet. IPF occurs mainly in older adults, and in more men than women.

Idiopathic means that the cause isn’t known. Several studies have identified potential risks. These include genetic factors, viruses, lifestyle factors, environmental factors, and several occupations. But there are still many unknowns about the disease and its progression, and more research is needed.

A 2011 study suggests that having a family history of IPF is a “strong risk factor” for the disease, and for its earlier onset. This study found that 10 percent of its sample of 229 people had a family history of IPF.

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. You can’t do anything about genetic factors, but you may be able to do something about other potential risks.

Cigarette smoking

As with other lung diseases, cigarette smoking has a strong association with IPF, especially for people who’ve smoked more heavily and longer. A 1997 study found that long-term smoking was a high risk.

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 under investigation.

The bottom line: If you smoke, stop. If you need help in quitting, join a support group or consult a specialist.

Environmental exposure to dust, fibers, and fumes

Studies have identified a significant increased risk of IPF with exposure to inorganic and animal dust and fumes from chemicals. This includes:

  • wood dust and use of wood fires
  • metal dusts, such as brass, lead, and steel
  • vegetable dust
  • livestock dust
  • asbestos
  • bird droppings

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
  • industrial car cleaning
  • technical dental work

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

The bottom line: If you work around dust and fumes, wear a mask and try to minimize your exposure times. Improve the ventilation in your work environment. At home, use an air cleaner to remove fumes and dust.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle

Healthy eating is always an important line of defense against disease. Limit your intake of fast foods, processed foods, and sugar. Check labels: Foods advertised as low fat are usually high in sugar. If you’re overweight, consult with your doctor about how to get to a healthy weight.

There is an additional benefit of a healthy diet for IPF. Researchers have found that there’s an increased risk of IPF if you have diet-related diseases such as diabetes, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that nine out of 10 people with IPF also have GERD. It’s not known why this is the case, and the subject is under study. One theory is that people with GERD may breathe in tiny drops of stomach acid, which injures their lungs.

In addition to eating well, you should also concentrate on staying active. Ask your doctor about the appropriate level of exercise activities for you to maintain your strength and your lungs. Today there are all sorts of programs to help you stay active at any age and with any budget. Community centers and senior centers have free classes in yoga, aerobics, Zumba, tai chi, strength training, and various sports. Videos to guide you at home are available to purchase or to check out at the library. Walking is a great moderate exercise, and even walking around your house or apartment counts.

There are many other ways to keep your lung power in shape. Try yoga breathing techniques, singing, playing an instrument, dancing, bike riding, swimming, and other sports.

Other lifestyle tips

De-stress as much as possible: Stress has 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 tame them. If you’re stressed about a particular aspect of your life, look for a support group of people with similar concerns. Or talk to family and friends about how they de-stress. You may also want to see a counselor or therapist for help in dealing with stress.

Take time to relax: Figure out what relaxes you and make some time each day for that activity. Some of the things people use to relax and de-stress:

  • 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, consult your doctor about an appropriate remedy. Sometimes the fix is simple, like shutting off your computer and phone an hour before bedtime.

Avoid infections: Researchers have linked an increased risk of IPF with several viruses, including Epstein-Barr, HIV, hepatitis C, and herpes virus 6. Stay up to date with vaccinations against flu. During flu season be mindful of crowds. Wash your hands frequently to avoid catching or passing on viruses.

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

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

Limit exposure to these as much as possible. Wood burning for heating or cooking also produces dust and fumes. Use an air cleaner if this is a problem. 

The takeaway

Researchers aren’t sure what causes IPF. It seems to be a mix of genetic and environmental factors. You can’t change your genetics, but you can maintain healthy lifestyle habits that will keep you and your lungs in good shape. Number one on the list for smokers: Stop smoking.