I am slowly emerging following several weeks of hospital visits and confinement to bed. I’ve been extremely weak and unable to eat thanks to bacterial pneumonia and the influenza virus.
Either of these illnesses alone is enough to kill a patient living with a chronic lung disease such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), so I am thankful to be here and on the mend, albeit slowly. While I’m feeling a little better, I can’t help but wonder about the permanent damage these illnesses have done to my lungs.
Many patients living with IPF are immunocompromised because of the medications we take to manage our disease. We’re susceptible to catching bacterial infections and viruses, and when we do become ill we’re in danger of those illnesses causing significant harm. I’ve had multiple rounds of antibiotics, antifungals, fluids, and several hospital-based interventions. While those around me might be tired of hearing me advocate for the flu shot and the importance of staying home when you’re sick, my experience is a reminder of the importance of taking precautions, particularly when you’re in the vicinity of someone who is immunocompromised.
I understand that it is impossible to avoid exposure to illness entirely, especially during cold and flu season. However, it is essential that all patients and their caregivers take the proper precautions to avoid getting sick. While the acute symptoms of these illnesses are unpleasant for patients and may lead to hospitalization, I fear the permanent damage and risks associated with an IPF patient getting sick.
During the last few weeks, my life was at risk because of the symptoms of these illnesses. We don’t yet know if this episode has caused permanent lung damage. Here are some of the reasons getting sick is so risky for patients living with IPF:
- Inability to eat: A common symptom of a stomach virus is loss of appetite. While this might not be an issue for healthy people, it can be problematic for those of us who have to eat to take our medications. I am on Ofev (nintedanib), one of two antifibrotic therapies used to manage IPF. Unfortunately, the medication has gastrointestinal side effects. Eating a small meal when I take Ofev combats those unpleasant side effects, so being unable to eat means I can’t tolerate the medication that helps to slow fibrosis progression in my lungs. In the short term, this might not be an issue, but over longer periods without Ofev, my risk of disease progression increases.
- Vomiting while using supplemental oxygen: Vomiting is incredibly unpleasant. And getting particles stuck in the nasal cannula of your supplemental oxygen adds another layer of disgust. Oxygen tubing and cannulas must be changed frequently when we’re sick, to reduce the risk of reinfection. We have diminished lung function and, subsequently, poor oxygen saturation, which makes vomiting scary because of the risk of choking. My physician told me I was at risk of aspirating on my vomit when I had the flu.
- Irreversible loss of lung function: Viruses and bacterial infections often settle in the lungs of those who are immunocompromised. When this happens, the physiological damage to the lungs and loss of function are permanent and irreversible. For those with healthy lungs, a small decline in function may go unnoticed. But for those of us who already have reduced lung function, any loss is significant.
- Increased risk of secondary exposure: People with IPF are rarely able to fight off serious illnesses such as bacterial pneumonia on their own and will likely require a hospital admission. A hospital stay poses an increased risk of secondary exposure to other viruses. My medical team discussed with me the likelihood that I contracted influenza while attending a follow-up appointment to assess my pneumonia.
Contracting a virus or bacterial infection is risky for anyone. But the rapid progression of the illness for an IPF patient can be fatal if medical treatment is delayed. Doing your best to avoid illness as a patient is crucial because the risks with IPF can be permanent and significant.
Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.