Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that affects not only joints but causes serious health complications in other parts of your body too, including your lungs. In fact, RA-mediated lung diseases are the most common complications of RA and affect up to 70% of all people with RA. Lung complications due to RA can be very serious and can even lead to death. 

That’s why, it becomes extremely important to protect your lungs if you have rheumatoid arthritis or a familial history of RA. 

Here are the top five lung complications that your long-standing RA can lead you to: 

1. Intestinal Lung Disease

RA-mediated interstitial lung disease (RA-ILD) is one of the most serious and common lung complications of rheumatoid arthritis. According to the Arthritis Foundation, ILD affects 1 in every 10 people with RA, and is the leading cause of death in rheumatoid arthritis after cardiac diseases.  

ILD is characterized by the inflammation and scarring of lung tissues that occur due to an over-active immune system that goes on to attack the lungs. Over the time, the lung scarring causes a widespread damage and leads to: 

  • Difficulty in breathing 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue 
  • Reduced appetite  
  • Excessive weight loss

2. Pleural Disease

Rheumatoid arthritis can also lead to the inflammation of pleura or the soft tissue that surrounds the lungs. This leads to excessive fluid build-up in the pleural space – the space between the lung tissue and the chest wall – and may lead to pain, troubled breathing and/ or shortness of breath, often accompanied by fever. 

3. Lung Nodules

The underlying inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis also leads to the formation of noncancerous lumps in the lungs. Known as lung nodules, these lumps of mass sometimes may also form in throat or vocal cord and lead to complications including hoarseness in voice, breathing difficulty, shortness of breath and more.     

4. Small Airway Obstruction

Rheumatoid arthritis can also lead to the inflammation within the small airways of your lungs. This causes thickening within these airways and lead to obstruction due to mucus blockages within your lungs. This leads to dry cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue in patients with RA. The doctor usually prescribes inhalers or bronchodilators to open up the airways and ensure smoother breathing.

5. Pulmonary Hypertension

Your progressing RA can also lead to pulmonary hypertension or high blood pressure in the arteries of your lungs. It can also affect the arteries that carry blood from your heart to your lungs and make your heart work harder. Due to pulmonary hypertension, it becomes difficult for your heart to pump blood through your lungs, which can lead to various serious and life-threatening complications, including death. 

RA patients with pulmonary hypertension usually experience: 

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Racing heartbeat 
  • Chest pain or pressure 
  • Wheezing
  • Dizziness  
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Bluish color of the skin or lips

6. Bronchiectasis

A chronic complication of rheumatoid arthritis, in bronchiectasis, RA inflammation causes the walls of the bronchi to thicken. The lungs also become prone to infection. Symptoms of bronchiectasis include periodic flare-ups coupled with 

  • Breathlessness 
  • Fever and chills 
  • Chest pain 
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing or whistling sound during breathing 
  • Thickening of skin under the nails

7. Bronchiolitis Obliterans

Bronchiolitis obliterans is a dangerous and life-threatening condition that occurs due to the inflammation and scarring of lung tissues. It is one of the RA-mediated lung diseases that worsen over time and ultimately lead to respiratory failure. 

In bronchiolitis obliterans, bronchioles or the small airways of lungs become injured due to inflammation and prevent air from passing through the air sacs. This impairs the body’s ability to absorb oxygen, leading to shortness of breath, dry cough, wheezing and fatigue.  

Who are at Risk for Lung Diseases?

Anyone and everyone suffering for rheumatoid arthritis is at potential risk for developing chronic lung diseases. However, the risk doubles if people with RA: 

  • Smoke 
  • Have increased disease activity
  • Are male (Men are two to three times more susceptible to ILD than women) 
  • Are Aged (60 and above) 
  • Are taking methotrexate and other DMARD medications 

Ways to Protect Your Lungs from Rheumatoid Arthritis Complications

Rheumatoid arthritis can have a severe and lasting impact on your lungs. That’s why, it is important to protect your lungs from RA-mediated complexities that can not only lead to permanent lung damage but even death. 

Here are some ways to protect your lungs from RA-related problems: 

Keep a Check on the Progression of Your Disease

RA is a progressive, degenerative disease which over the years can cause severe damage to your various vital organs, including lungs. To prevent the acute damage that RA can cause, it is important to keep a close check on the progression of the disease. So, watch out for all the signs of rheumatoid arthritis and immediately get in touch with your primary care physician if you experience persistent cough, shortness of breath, fever or any other health complication. 

Quit Smoking

Smoking not only worsens your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, it also multiplies your risk for RA-mediated interstitial lung disease. To stay safe, it is important to say ‘NO’ to smoking. Speak to your physician in case you are finding it difficult to quit tobacco and need expert help. 

Limit Your Exposure to Pollutants and Chemicals

There are various chemicals and pollutants in the air that increase the oxidative stress in the body, causing inflammation – which, in case of RA, is detrimental both for your joints and lungs. That’s why, patients with RA should limit their exposure to pesticides, airborne chemicals, pollutants and more.  

Be Aware of the Possible Side-Effects of RA Medications

Medicines which are used to treat pain in RA can sometimes lead to lung infections. You must talk to your doctor to know the possible side effects of the medicines and their effect on your lungs and other parts of the body.  

Stay in Constant Touch with Your Doctor

If you are suffering from RA, it is important for you to visit your doctor at regular intervals. This will not only help your doctor to check the progression of the disease, but will also help you detect and prevent lung complications (and other health complications) that might be arising due to RA. Timely detection and treatment can prevent lung infections from worsening or turning fatal. 

At EPIC Health, we can help you manage your rheumatoid arthritis and prevent it from causing chronic lung infections. Our expert primary care physicians carry out a number of health screenings to evaluate the extent of your disease progression and prevent RA from causing lung infections or other heath complication. 

Schedule an appointment at EPIC Health today! We can help you live happy, healthy and better.