Although rheumatoid arthritis primarily affects joints, it sometimes causes lung disease as well. People who have had rheumatoid arthritis for several years and who are between the ages of 50 and 60 seem to be the most likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis-related lung disease. Occasionally, however, lung problems surface before the joint inflammation and pain of rheumatoid arthritis.
The lung problems most often linked to rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Scarring within the lungs. Scarring related to long-term inflammation (interstitial lung disease) may cause shortness of breath, chronic dry cough, fatigue, weakness and loss of appetite.
- Lung nodules. Small lumps may form in the lungs (rheumatoid nodules), as well as in other parts of the body. Lung nodules usually cause no signs or symptoms, and they don't pose a risk of lung cancer. In some cases, however, a nodule can rupture and cause a collapsed lung.
- Pleural disease. The tissue surrounding the lungs, known as the pleura (PLOOR-uh), can become inflamed in rheumatoid arthritis. Pleural inflammation is often accompanied by pleural effusion (PLOOR-ul uh-FU-zhun) — a buildup of fluid between two layers of the pleura. Sometimes the fluid disappears on its own. A large pleural effusion, however, can cause shortness of breath. Pleural disease may also cause fever and pain on breathing.
Contact your doctor promptly if you have rheumatoid arthritis and experience any unexplained breathing problems. Sometimes treatment is aimed at the underlying rheumatoid arthritis. In other cases, treatment involves medication to suppress the immune system or a procedure to remove fluid from the lungs.