Newswise — According to the 2020 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking Cessation*, 14% of Americans identify as smokers. While this percentage has greatly diminished over the past century, the long-term effects of tobacco usage have resulted in over 16 million Americans suffering from smoking-related diseases – one of which is pulmonary fibrosis (PF). 

PF is a debilitating, unsuspected lung disease affecting more than 200,000 Americans. There is currently no cure. A recent survey** from the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation (PFF) finds that over 80% of smokers are unfamiliar with PF – a concerning statistic among a population disproportionately affected by the disease. Smokers and non-smokers alike prove to have little awareness of PF. In fact, a vast majority (86%) of Americans do not know symptoms of the disease, which include shortness of breath, a dry, chronic cough and fatigue. 

“Smokers are often aware that tobacco usage can lead to diseases such as lung cancer, COPD and emphysema, among others. However, as smokers experience chronic symptoms similar those of PF, such as a dry, persistent cough, it is important they discuss PF with their doctors,” said Dr. Amy Hajari Case, PFF Senior Medical Advisor of Education and Awareness.

Both current and past smokers are at a heightened risk for PF. Tobacco smoke contains thousands of chemical components that are inhaled and then deposited throughout the large and small airways and alveoli of the lungs (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS] 2010). These toxic components injure the lungs through a variety of mechanisms. Although successful smoking cessation ends daily exposure to innumerable injurious compounds, the prolonged deleterious effects of tobacco smoke result in irreversible impairment in immune responses, changes in the makeup of the lung microbiome and continued lung injury even after cessation (USDHHS 2014).

In addition to smoking, it's important to pinpoint these critical risk factors of PF:

  • Occupational Exposures: May be identified if a patient has had significant current or prior exposure to a variety of inorganic dusts, including asbestos, silica, coal dust, beryllium and hard metal dusts.
  • Environmental Exposures: Can occur after breathing in mold spores, bacteria, animal proteins (especially from indoor or caged birds) or other known triggers for an extended period. Doctors will listen for “squeaks” heard in the lung.
  • Age and Genetic Factors: More likely to occur in those who are 60 years and older. Other factors include a family history of interstitial lung disease (ILD).

Remember – it’s never too late to stop smoking. Smoking cessation proves to increase overall health and quality of life of patients across all age demographics, reaping benefits such as:

  • Reduction of loss of core lung function over time
  • Increased lung capacity, crucial to maintaining a healthy blood oxygen level
  • Possible reduction of inflammation of the airway (a process that can take months, or even years)

Embrace the New Year as an opportunity to learn more about smoking cessation and diseases related to tobacco usage, such as PF. To get started, the PFF’s AboutPF.org includes helpful resources like a downloadable Risk List, which allows visitors to check off potential risk factors and symptoms to facilitate a discussion with their physicians. AboutPF.org also connects patients with local pulmonologists through the PFF Care Center Network, a group of 68 medical centers with expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of PF. 

* 2020 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking Cessation: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/2020-cessation-sgr-full-report.pdf

**PFF National Awareness Survey 2020: https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/docs/default-source/marketing-brochures/pff-national-consumer-survey-report---for-review-updated-2-19-2020.pdf?sfvrsn=c479c8d_0