• By Laurel Kelly

Consumer Health: How rheumatoid arthritis can affect your lungs

July 12, 2022
a serious-looking middle-aged man

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues. Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that eventually can result in bone erosion and joint deformity.

The inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis is what can damage other parts of the body as well, including the lungs. Occasionally, lung problems surface before the joint inflammation and pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Men in their 50s and 60s whose rheumatoid arthritis is more active and have a history of smoking are more likely to develop lung disease related to rheumatoid arthritis.

The lung problems most often linked to rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Scarring within the lungs
    Scarring related to long-term inflammation, called interstitial lung disease, may cause shortness of breath, a chronic dry cough, fatigue, weakness and loss of appetite.
  • Lung nodules
    Small lumps, called rheumatoid nodules, can form in the lungs and 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, can become inflamed. Pleural inflammation is often accompanied by a buildup of fluid between two layers of the pleura. Sometimes the fluid resolves on its own. A large pleural effusion, however, can cause shortness of breath. Pleural disease also may cause a fever and pain with breathing.
  • Small airway obstruction
    The walls of small airways of the lungs can become thickened because of chronic inflammation and infection, or inflamed or injured. This may cause mucus to build up in the lungs, as well as shortness of breath, a chronic dry cough, fatigue and weakness.

Sometimes treatment is aimed at the rheumatoid arthritis. In other cases, treatment involves medication to suppress the immune system or a procedure to remove fluid surrounding the lungs.

Connect with others talking about living with rheumatoid arthritis in the Autoimmune Diseases support group on Mayo Clinic Connect, an online patient community moderated by Mayo Clinic.