Radiation pneumonitis

Radiation pneumonitis is the acute manifestation of radiation-induced lung disease and is relatively common following radiotherapy for chest wall or intrathoracic malignancies.

This article does not deal with changes seen in the the late phase. Please refer to the article on radiation-induced lung disease for a general discussion and radiation fibrosis for specific discussion of these late changes.

For discussion of epidemiology of radiation induced lung disease please refer to the parent article: radiation induced lung disease.

The acute phase typically occurs between 4 and 12 weeks following completion of radiotherapy course, although they may be seen as early as 1 week, especially in patients receiving high total dose and/or also having received chemotherapy 1-3.

Symptoms typically include 3:

  • cough
  • dyspnea (exertional or at rest)
  • low grade fever
  • chest discomfort
  • pleuritic pain

Radiation pneumonitis reflects acute response of the lung to radiation and includes 3:

  • loss of type I pneumocytes
  • increased capillary permeability resulting in
  • interstitial and alveolar edema
  • ingress of inflammatory cells into the alveolar spaces

When changes are seen in the non-irradiated lung an immune mediated lymphocytic alveolitis has been postulated as the underlying cause 3.

Although changes in the lung are usually confined to the irradiated port, changes in the remainder of the lung may also on occasion be seen 1,3.

Chest x-ray changes are non-specific, but confined to the irradiation port, with airspace opacities being most common. Pleural effusions or atelectasis are also sometimes seen 1,5.

CT is not only better able to delineate parenchymal changes, but often demonstrates changes localised to the irradiated field, making the diagnosis easier. It should be noted however that with stereotactic radiation therapy the shape of the irradiated field will not have straight edges or conform to the traditional conventional radiotherapy portals. As such it may be less obviously artificial in shape 4.

In cases of early or subtle radiation induced pneumonitis, areas of ground-glass opacity may be evident on CT despite a normal chest x-ray 1,2.

The two most common findings are 1,2

  1. ground-glass opacities and/or
  2. airspace consolidation

Additional features that are sometimes seen include 1

FDG-PET performed soon after completion of of radiotherapy often demonstrates increased metabolic activity in both lungs, especially in a peripheral distribution. Only a minority of patient go on to develop clinically or CT evident pneumonitis 3.

Steroids can reduce the severity of acute radiation pneumonitis. Depending on the degree of injury changes may be mild and spontaneously resolve or progress adult respiratory distress syndrome with high rate of mortality 1,3. Chronically radiation fibrosis may occur 1.

If a clear demarcation conforming to the irradiation port is seen then there is little difficulty in making the diagnosis, especially when a history of chest radiotherapy is known.

In cases where the distribution is atypical the differential depends on the dominant feature:

A knowledge of the time course of the changes with respect to radiotherapy, total dose administered, administration of chemotherapy, and shape of the portal used can all have a significant impact on the differential, and thus should be sought if they have not been provided by the referring clinician.

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Article information

rID: 9274
System: Chest
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Acute phase of radiation-induced lung disease
  • Rediation related lung injury

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Cases and figures

  • Case 1: radiation pneumonitis
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  • Case 2
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  • Case 3
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