What is Radiation Pneumonitis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
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Radiation pneumonitis is a side effect of radiation therapy for cancer. It is most commonly seen in people with lung cancer, but it can also be seen in people who are being treated for breast cancer and lymphoma, among other cancers. This side effect is not necessarily harmful, but it is a cause for concern, and when radiation pneumonitis is identified in a patient it is advisable to monitor the patient more closely.

When people are treated with radiation therapy, even though the therapy is targeted, it inevitably hits some of the neighboring cells in the area and damages them. In the case of radiation pneumonitis, the tissues in the lungs are damaged by the radiation and the the lungs become inflamed. Sometimes the inflammation is low grade and the patient experiences no symptoms. In other cases, the patient develops radiation pneumonitis symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, and fever.

People with preexisting lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) are at increased risk of developing radiation pneumonitis when they undergo cancer treatments. These patients may be monitored especially closely for signs of inflammation, especially because they may have trouble distinguishing the symptoms from the symptoms associated with their existing lung problems. Chemotherapy concurrent with radiation also increases the risk of radiation pneumonitis.


This side effect can be diagnosed with blood tests, which will reveal an elevated white cell count suggestive of inflammation, along with X-rays, which should show the inflammation in the lungs. Treatment involves administration of anti-inflammatory drugs to bring down the inflammation. The patient may also need to be treated for infection because the lungs can be susceptible to infection.

If radiation pneumonitis is not treated properly or it progresses despite treatment, it can develop into radiation fibrosis. Fibrosis involves permanent scarring of the lungs which will alter lung function for the rest of the patient's life. The patient may require supplemental oxygen or other treatments to breathe more easily.

Before undergoing radiation for cancer, patients will be acquainted with the risks of the radiation and the steps they can take to protect themselves. It is very important to report any symptoms experienced, no matter how minor they may seem, because they can be a sign of an emerging complication such as radiation pneumonitis which requires treatment. Close supervision by an oncologist is an important aspect of cancer treatment as well, because oncologists are familiar with the complications associated with cancer and cancer treatments.



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