Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis


Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a chronic and ultimately fatal disease characterized by a progressive decline in lung function. The term pulmonary fibrosis means scarring of lung tissue and is the cause of worsening dyspnea (shortness of breath). Fibrosis is usually associated with a poor prognosis.

The term 'idiopathic' is used because the cause of pulmonary fibrosis is still unknown. IPF usually occurs in adult individuals of between 50 and 70 years of age, particularly those with a history of cigarette smoking, and affects more men than women. The diagnosis of IPF requires exclusion of other known causes of ILD and the presence of a typical radiological pattern identified through high resolution computed tomography (HRCT). In the right clinical setting, it is possible to make the diagnosis of IPF by HRCT alone, obviating the need for surgical lung biopsy.

IPF belongs to a large group of more than 200 lung diseases known as interstitial lung diseases (ILD), characterized by the involvement of lung interstitium. The interstitium, the tissue between the air sacs in the lung, is the primary site of injury in ILDs. However, these disorders frequently affect not only the interstitium, but also the airspaces, peripheral airways, and vessels. Lung tissue from people with IPF shows a characteristic histopathologic pattern known as usual interstitial pneumonia (UIP). UIP is therefore the pathologic counterpart of IPF.


In many patients, symptoms are present for a considerable time before diagnosis. The most common clinical features of IPF include the following:

  • Age over 50 years
  • Dry, non-productive cough on exertion
  • Progressive exertional dyspnea (shortness of breath with exercise)
  • Dry, inspiratory bibasilar "velcro-like" crackles on auscultation (a crackling sound in the lungs during inhalation similar to Velcro being torn apart slowly, heard with a stethoscope).
  • Clubbing of the digits, a disfigurement of the finger tips or toes (see image)
  • Abnormal pulmonary function test results, with evidence of restriction and impaired gas exchange.

These features are due to chronic oxygen deficiency in blood and can occur in a wide variety of other pulmonary disorders and not be specific for IPF. However, IPF should be considered in all patients with unexplained chronic exertional dyspnea who present with cough, inspiratory bibasilar crackles, or finger clubbing.

Assessment of "velcro" crackles on lung auscultation is a practical way to improve the earlier diagnosis of IPF. Fine crackles are easily recognized by clinicians and are characteristic of IPF.

If bilateral fine crackles are present throughout the inspiratory time and are persisting after several deep breaths, and if remaining present on several occasions several weeks apart in a subject aged ≥60 years, this should raise the suspicion of IPF and lead to consideration of an HRCT scan of the chest which is more sensitive than a chest X-ray. As crackles are not specific for IPF, they must prompt a thorough diagnostic process.


The cause of IPF is unknown but certain environmental factors and exposures have been shown to increase the risk of getting IPF. Cigarette smoking is the best recognized and most accepted risk factor for IPF, and increases the risk of IPF by about twofold. Other environmental and occupational exposures such as exposure to metal dust, wood dust, coal dust, silica, stone dust, biologic dusts coming from hay dust or mold spores or other agricultural products, and occupations related to farming/livestock have also been shown to increase the risk for IPF. There is some evidence that viral infections may be associated with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and other fibrotic lung diseases.


Avoiding smoking may help prevent this condition, but how to prevent the cause is not known.


An earlier diagnosis of IPF is a prerequisite for earlier treatment and, potentially, improvement of the long-term clinical outcome of this progressive and ultimately fatal disease. If IPF is suspected, diagnosis can be challenging but a multidisciplinary approach involving a pulmonologist, radiologist and pathologist expert in interstitial lung disease has been shown to improve the accuracy of IPF diagnosis.

A Multidisciplinary Consensus Statement on the Idiopathic Interstitial Pneumonias published by the American Thoracic Society (ATS) and the European Respiratory Society (ERS) in 2000 proposed specific major and minor criteria for establishing the diagnosis of IPF. However, in 2011, new simplified and updated criteria for the diagnosis and management of IPF were published by the ATS, ERS, together with the Japanese Respiratory Society (JRS) and Latin American Thoracic Association (ALAT). Currently, a diagnosis of IPF requires:

  • Exclusion of known causes of ILD, e.g., domestic and occupational environmental exposures, connective tissue disorders, or drug exposure/toxicity
  • The presence of a typical radiological UIP pattern on HRCT.


In the right clinical setting, it is possible to make the diagnosis of IPF by HRCT alone, obviating the need for surgical lung biopsy.

Recognizing IPF in clinical practice can be challenging as symptoms often appear similar to those of more common diseases, such asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and congestive heart failure ( The key issue facing clinicians is whether the presenting history, symptoms (or signs), radiology, and pulmonary function testing are collectively in keeping with the diagnosis of IPF or whether the findings are due to another process. It has long been recognized that patients with ILD related to asbestos exposure, drugs (such as chemotherapeutic agents or nitrofurantoin), rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma/systemic sclerosis may be difficult to distinguish from IPF. Other differential diagnostic considerations include interstitial lung disease related to mixed connective tissue disease, advanced sarcoidosis, chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis, pulmonary Langerhan’s cell histiocytosis and radiation-induced lung injury.


Chest X-rays are useful in the follow up routine of IPF patients. Plain chest X-rays are unfortunately not diagnostic but may reveal decreased lung volumes, typically with prominent reticular interstitial markings near the lung bases.

The radiological evaluation through HRCT is an essential point in the diagnostic pathway in IPF. HRCT is performed using a conventional computed axial tomographic scanner without injection of contrast agents. Evaluation slices are very thin, 1–2 mm.

Typical HRCT of the chest of IPF demonstrates fibrotic changes in both lungs, with a predilection for the bases and the periphery. According to the joint ATS/ERS/JRS/ALAT 2011 guidelines, HRCT is an essential component of the diagnostic pathway in IPF which can identify UIP by the presence of:

  • Reticular opacities, often associated with traction bronchiectasis
  • Honeycombing manifested as cluster cystic airspaces, typically of comparable diameters (3–10 mm) but occasionally large. Usually sub-pleural and characterized by well-defined walls and disposed in at least two lines. Generally one line of cysts is not sufficient to define honeycombing
  • Ground-glass opacities are common but less extensive than the reticulation
  • Distribution characteristically basal and peripheral though often patchy



According to the updated 2011 guidelines, in the absence of a typical UIP pattern on HRCT, a surgical lung biopsy is required for confident diagnosis.

Histologic specimens for the diagnosis of IPF must be taken at least in three different places and be large enough that the pathologist can comment on the underlying lung architecture. Small biopsies, such as those obtained via transbronchial lung biopsy (performed during bronchoscopy) are usually not sufficient for this purpose. Hence, larger biopsies obtained surgically via a thoracotomy or thoracoscopy are usually necessary.

Lung tissue from people with IPF usually show a characteristic histopathologic UIP pattern and is therefore the pathologic counterpart of IPF. Although a pathologic diagnosis of UIP often corresponds to a clinical diagnosis of IPF, a UIP histologic pattern can be seen in other diseases as well, and fibrosis of known origin (rheumatic diseases for example). There are four key features of UIP including interstitial fibrosis in a ‘patchwork pattern’, interstitial scarring, honeycomb changes and fibroblast foci.

Fibroblastic foci are dense collections of myofibroblasts and scar tissue and, together with honeycombing, are the main pathological findings that allow a diagnosis of UIP.

Bronchoalveolar lavage

Bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) is a well-tolerated diagnostic procedure in ILD. BAL cytology analyses (differential cell counts) should be considered in the evaluation of patients with IPF at the discretion of the treating physician based on availability and experience at their institution. BAL may reveal alternative specific diagnoses: malignancy, infections, eosinophilic pneumonia, histiocytosis X, or alveolar proteinosis. In the evaluation of patients with suspected IPF, the most important application of BAL is in the exclusion of other diagnoses. Prominent lymphocytosis (>30%) generally allows excluding a diagnosis of IPF.

Pulmonary function tests

Spirometry classically reveals a reduction in the vital capacity (VC) with either a proportionate reduction in airflows, or increased airflows for the observed vital capacity. The latter finding reflects the increased lung stiffness (reduced lung compliance) associated with pulmonary fibrosis, which leads to increased lung elastic recoil.

Measurement of static lung volumes using body plethysmography or other techniques typically reveals reduced lung volumes (restriction). This reflects the difficulty encountered in inflating the fibrotic lungs.

The diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide (DLCO) is invariably reduced in IPF and may be the only abnormality in mild or early disease. Its impairment underlies the propensity of patients with IPF to exhibit oxygen desaturation with exercise which can also be evaluated using the 6-minute walk test (6MWT).

Terms such as 'mild', 'moderate', and 'severe' are sometimes used for staging disease and are commonly based on resting pulmonary function test measurements. However, there is no clear consensus regarding the staging of IPF patients and what are the best criteria and values to use. Mild-to-moderate IPF has been characterized by the following functional criteria:

  •   Forced Vital Capacity (FVC) of ≥50%
  •   DLCO of ≥30%
  •   6MWT distance ≥150 meters


Some patients may improve or stay stable for a long time when they are treated with corticosteroids or cytotoxic drugs. However, in most people the disease can get worse even with treatment. This worsening can happen quickly, or very slowly.

When breathing symptoms become more severe, discuss treatments that prolong life, health care agents, and advanced care directives with your health care provider.


  • Abnormally high levels of red blood cells due to low blood oxygen levels
  • Collapsed lung
  • High blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs
  • Respiratory failure


The goals of treatment in IPF are essentially to reduce the symptoms, stop disease progression, prevent acute exacerbations, and prolong survival. Preventive care (e.g. vaccinations) and symptom-based treatment should be started early in every patient.

Pharmacologic interventions

A number of treatments have been investigated in the past for IPF, including interferon gamma-1β, bosentan, ambrisentan, and anticoagulants, but these are no longer considered effective treatment options. Many of these earlier studies were based on the hypothesis that IPF is an inflammatory disorder.


Pirfenidone is a small molecule that combines both anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-fibrotic effects in experimental models of fibrosis. Pirfenidone marketed under the trade name Esbriet®, is approved in Europe for the treatment of patients with mild-to-moderate IPF. It is also approved in Japan and South Korea (trade name Pirespa®), as well as in Canada, China, India, Argentina and Mexico. In October 2014 it was approved for use in IPF in the United States of America by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Pirfenidone was approved in the European Union based on the results of three Phase III, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, one conducted in Japan and the other two in Europe and the USA (CAPACITY trials).

A Review on the Cochrane Library (the journal of the Cochrane Collaboration for evidence-based Medicine) based on four trials involving 1155 patients comparing pirfenidone with placebo, demonstrated a significantly reduced risk of disease progression in patients treated with pirfenidone by 30%. FVC or VC was also significantly improved by pirfenidone, even if a mild slowing in FVC decline could be demonstrated only in one of the two CAPACITY trials. On the basis of these mixed results, the American Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested a third multinational Phase III clinical study,ASCEND (NCT01366209). This study, which was completed in 2014 and published on-line in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that pirfenidone significantly reduced decline in lung function and IPF disease progression. The data from the ASCEND study were also pooled with data from the two CAPACITY studies in a pre-specified analysis which showed that pirfenidone reduced the risk of death by almost 50% over one year of treatment. Based on these results, pirfenidone has been granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation from the U.S. FDA, a designation reserved for drugs that are intended to treat a serious or life-threatening disease or condition and preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement over existing therapies on one or more clinically significant endpoints. The company that has developed pirfenidone, InterMune Inc., is providing compassionate use of pirfenidone through a multi-center Expanded Access Program (EAP) in the United States during the pre-approval period.

N-acetylcysteine and triple therapy

N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is a precursor to glutathione, an antioxidant. It has been hypothesized that treatment with high doses of NAC may repair an oxidant–antioxidant imbalance that occurs in the lung tissue of patients with IPF. In the first clinical trial of 180 patients (IFIGENIA), NAC was shown in previous study to reduce the decline in VC and DLCO over 12 months of follow-up when used in combination with prednisone and azathioprine (triple therapy).

More recently, a large randomized, controlled trial (PANTHER-IPF) was undertaken by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA to evaluate triple therapy and NAC monotherapy in IPF patients. This study found that the combination of prednisone, azathioprine, and NAC increased the risk of death and hospitalizations and the NIH announced in 2012 that the triple-therapy arm of the PANTHER-IPF study had been terminated early.

This study also evaluated NAC alone and the results for this arm of the study were published in May 2014 in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluding that "as compared with placebo, acetylcysteine offered no significant benefit with respect to the preservation of FVC in patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis with mild-to-moderate impairment in lung function".

Nintedanib(formerly BIBF1120)

One treatment in development has completed two Phase III trials (INPULSIS-1 and INPULSIS-2). Nintedanib is an investigational orally-administered triple angiokinase inhibitor that targets receptor tyrosine kinases involved in the regulation of angiogenesis: fibroblast growth factor receptor (FGFR), platelet-derived growth factor receptor (PDGFR), and vascular endothelial growth factor receptor (VEGFR), which have also been implicated in the pathogenesis of fibrosis and IPF. In both phase III trials, nintedanib significantly reduced the decline in lung function by approximately 50% over one year.

With regards to the secondary endpoints, only in INPULSIS-2 trial, there was a significant increase in the time (delayed onset) of the first acute exacerbation (seeabove) in the nintedanib group as compared with the placebo group. In INPULSIS-1 trial this increase was not seen.

Nintedanib, like pirfenidone, was approved for the treatment of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis by the U.S. FDA in October 2014.

Future therapeutic options

A number of agents are currently being investigated in Phase II clinical trials for IPF, including the monoclonal antibodies simtuzumab, tralokimab, lebrikizumab and FG-3019, a lysophosphatidic acid receptor antagonist (BMS-986020). A Phase II study of STX-100 is also ongoing. These molecules are directed against several growth factors and cytokines that are known to play a role in the proliferation, activation, differentiation or inappropriate survival of fibroblasts.

mir-29 microRNA precursor investigations in mice have produced reversal of induced IPF. MRG-201 is currently being tested as-of 2016, but not in IPF patients yet, and no human trials for IPF use have been scheduled as-of January, 2016.

More information can be found at, a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of human participants conducted around the world.

Non pharmacological interventions

Lung transplantation

Lung transplantation may be suitable for those patients physically eligible to undergo a major transplant operation. In IPF patients, lung transplant has been shown to reduce the risk of death by 75% as compared with patients who remain on the waiting list. Since the introduction of the lung allocation score (LAS), which prioritizes transplant candidates based on survival probability, IPF has become the most common indication for lung transplantation in the USA.

Symptomatic patients with IPF younger than 65 years of age and with a body mass index (BMI) ≤26 kg/m2 should be referred for lung transplantation, but there are no clear data to guide the precise timing for LTx. Although controversial, the most recent data suggest that bilateral lung transplantation is superior to single lung transplantation in patients with IPF. Five-year survival rates after lung transplantation in IPF are estimated at between 50 and 56%

Long-term oxygen therapy

In the 2011 IPF guidelines, oxygen therapy, or supplementary oxygen for home use, became a strong recommendation for use in those patients with clinically significant resting hypoxemia. Although oxygen therapy has not been shown to improve survival in IPF, some data indicate an improvement in exercise capacity.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

Fatigue and loss of muscular mass are common and disabling problems for patients with IPF. Pulmonary rehabilitation may alleviate the overt symptoms of IPF and improve functional status by stabilizing and/or reversing the extrapulmonary features of the disease. The number of published studies on the role of pulmonary rehabilitation in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is small, but most of these studies have found significant short-term improvements in functional exercise tolerance, quality of life, and dyspnea on exertion. Typical programs of rehabilitation include exercise training, nutritional modulation, occupational therapy, education and psychosocial counseling. In the late phase of disease, IPF patients tend to discontinue physical activity due to increasing dyspnea. Whenever possible, this should be discouraged.

Palliative care

Palliative care focuses on reducing symptoms and improving the comfort of patients rather than treating the disease. This may include treatment of worsening symptoms with the use of chronic opioids for severe dyspnea and cough. Further, oxygen therapy may be useful for palliation of dyspnea in hypoxemic patients.

Palliative care also includes relief of physical and emotional suffering and psychosocial support for patients and caregivers. With disease progression, patients may experience fear, anxiety and depression and psychological counseling should therefore be considered. In a recent study of outpatients with ILDs, including IPF, depression score, functional status (as assessed by walk test), as well as pulmonary function, all contributed to the severity of dyspnea.

In selected cases of particularly severe dyspnea morphine could be considered. It can reduce dyspnea, anxiety and cough without significant decrease in oxygen saturation.


IPF is often misdiagnosed, at least until physiological and/or imaging data suggest the presence of an ILD leading to delay in accessing appropriate care. Considering that IPF is a disease with a median survival of three years after diagnosis, early referral to a center with specific expertise should therefore be considered for any patient with suspected or known ILD. On the basis of the complex differential diagnostic, multidisciplinary discussion between pulmonologists, radiologists, and pathologists experienced in the diagnosis of ILD is of the utmost importance to an accurate diagnosis.

After diagnosis of IPF, and the appropriate treatment choice according to symptoms and stage of disease, a close follow-up should be applied. Due to the high variable course of disease, the higher incidence of complications such as lung cancer (up to 25% of patients has been reported in IPF) a routine evaluation every 3 to 6 months, including spirometry (body plethysmography), diffusion capacity testing, chest X-rays, 6MWT, assessment of dyspnea, quality of life, oxygen requirement is mandatory.

In addition, the increasing awareness of complications and common concomitant conditions frequently associated with IPF requires a routinely evaluation of comorbidities, most of them simply reflecting concurrent diseases of aging, and medications with their interaction and side effects.

Acute exacerbations

Acute exacerbations of IPF (AE-IPF) are defined as an unexplained worsening or development of dyspnea within 30 days with new radiological infiltrates at HRCT abnormality often superimposed on a background consistent with UIP pattern. The yearly incidence of AE-IPF is between 10 and 15% of all patients. The prognosis of AE-IPF is poor, with mortality ranging from 78% to 96%. Other causes of AE-IPF such as pulmonary embolism, congestive heart failure, pneumothorax, or infection need to be excluded. Pulmonary infection have to be ruled out by endotracheal aspirate or BAL.

Many patients experiencing acute deterioration require intensive care treatment, particularly when respiratory failure is associated with hemodynamic instability, significant co-morbidities or severe hypoxemia. However, mortality during hospitalization is high. Mechanical ventilation should be introduced only after carefully weighing the patient’s long-term prognosis and, whenever possible, the patient’s wishes. However, current guidelines discourage the use of mechanical ventilation in patients with respiratory failure secondary to IPF.