Lung diseases are characterized by issues with breathing, which is one of the most important biological function in the human body. A terminal lung disease like pulmonary fibrosis (PF) causes a chronic cough, shortness of breath and exhaustion. Lung transplants are an option only for patients who are experiencing advanced lung disease where other treatments have failed. For a lung transplant to take place, two things must happen: The patient must be eligible for a transplant and a donor organ must become available.

male doctor holding x ray

Lung Transplants for Pulmonary Fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis is a progressive disease for which there is currently no cure. The lungs scar and deteriorate over time to the point they can no longer function. For some patients, a lung transplant is the best option for extending life and for improving their quality of life. Almost half of all donated lungs go to patients suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, making it the leading cause of lung transplants.  While lung transplants are often successful at improving a patient’s ability to breathe and be active, they are usually a final option after other treatments no longer provide relief.

Although transplants for people suffering with PF are increasingly prevalent, they are usually only done after all other treatments have been exhausted. Treatment options like pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy, medications and lifestyle changes are recommended for people who are diagnosed with PF. Once the disease progresses to the point that these treatments are no longer effective at helping the lungs provide the body with sufficient oxygen, a lung transplant may be recommended.

Not every PF patient will be eligible for a lung transplant, and a lung transplant specialist will do an evaluation to determine whether the patient is a candidate for the procedure. The criteria for lung transplant eligibility is as follows:

  • Be physically healthy other than lung function
  • Be free of any other life-threatening health condition
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Understand the emotional implications of the procedure
  • Comply with all medical recommendations and prescription medication
  • Have undergone pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Have a support system in place

Patient evaluation will also consist of a range of psychosocial and physical tests to make sure they are psychologically and physically stable. This includes physical examinations and evaluations by pulmonary surgeons, and sometimes an evaluation by a social worker. These tests can include things like blood work, ECG and other diagnostic procedures.

If the candidate meets all the requirements, they will be accepted as a lung transplant patient and placed on the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) list to wait for the transplant organ to become available. Patients with more severe disease progression are placed higher on the list and have priority over patients who have better lung function. During this time, it is crucial for the patient to stay healthy and be in the best physical condition possible at the time a transplant organ becomes available. Once you are on the transplant list, you can be called in for a transplant at any time.

lung transplantation

Post-Surgery Recovery

For most patients, a lung transplant leads to a fuller, longer life. Depending on the specific condition of your lungs, you may need a double lung transplant or a single lung transplant. Most lung transplants are performed with few complications, but some risks include:

  • Donor lung rejection
  • Primary graft dysfunction (delay in lung function)
  • Infection

Difficulties such as these happen in around 10 to 20 percent of procedures. They usually require a more extended stay in the hospital and increased recovery time, and in some cases can result in death.

After the surgery, the patient will be monitored for complications and receive immunosuppressants and anti-rejection medications. The two most significant risks to the patient after receiving a lung transplant are infection and rejection, so it is important to take the necessary time to heal and be prepared for a recovery period at home. The medication used to prevent infection can weaken the immune system, making patients susceptible to illness. Patients are advised to keep their hands clean, avoid scratches on the skin and stay away from people who have the flu.

female doctor visting patient in room

If you are interested in learning more about a lung transplant for pulmonary fibrosis, talk to your doctor. They can give you the information about your specific set of circumstances and let you know if you might be eligible. For more information about living with PF, treatment options and support, visit PulmonaryFibrosisNow.org.

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