Two older women holding hands and discussing diagnosis of conditions with Pulmonary Fibrosis.

Diagnosing Lung Conditions with Pulmonary Fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis can be hard to diagnose as it shares symptoms with many other conditions. 

Key facts

  • Diagnosis can take a long time as patients with pulmonary fibrosis may have symptoms that are common in many conditions
  • A number of different tests are given to detect and monitor pulmonary fibrosis
  • A team of specialists will be involved in detecting, monitoring and treating pulmonary fibrosis

Canadians living with pulmonary fibrosis may have symptoms that are common in many conditions, meaning diagnosis can take a long time.

Diagnosing lung conditions with pulmonary fibrosis can be a challenge, which can be very frustrating. Many people will have been given a lot of different tests before being diagnosed with a lung condition with pulmonary fibrosis. However, doctors are always looking for ways to shorten the time to diagnosis.

This is important because once lung function is lost, it cannot be regained. So starting the appropriate treatment early on will allow you to preserve valuable lung function.

When looking for the correct diagnosis of a lung condition with pulmonary fibrosis, your healthcare team will need to rule out some other conditions. They will check for different symptoms, ask about your medical history and perform some tests to reach a final diagnosis. This is why you may have seen many different types of doctors and specialists before being diagnosed with a lung condition with pulmonary fibrosis. 

How is pulmonary fibrosis detected?

When detecting pulmonary fibrosis, you and your healthcare team will look at many areas of your health. For example, you will talk about your work history, family medical history, any potential drug and medication use and whether you have ever smoked.

Your doctor will also perform a physical examination to get a better understanding of your lung health. And other tests may be needed to make a clearer identification. Some of these investigative tests are listed below. 

Chest X-ray
This creates a picture of your lungs, revealing shadows that may show the scarring caused by pulmonary fibrosis.

Lung Function test
Tests such as spirometry measure how much air you can blow out of your lungs after taking a deep breath. 

High resolution computed tomography (HRCT)
A type of X-ray that gives sharper and more detailed pictures than a standard chest X-ray.

Bronchoalveolar lavage
A small tube is inserted into the lung to take a fluid sample to be examined.

Lung biopsy
During a biopsy, a sample of lung tissue is taken and examined under a microscope.

Skin test for tuberculosis
A small injection is given to check for tuberculosis (TB) infection.

Arterial blood gas test
Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels are measured in blood that has been taken from an artery using a needle.

Exercise testing
This will measure how well your lungs move oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of your bloodstream when you are active.

Pulse oximetry
This test uses a small device clipped onto your finger that estimates how much oxygen is in your blood.


Other than yourself, your healthcare team may consist of specialists and healthcare professionals. These specialists can include:

  • Respirologists (doctors who focus on the lungs)
  • Physicians
  • Pharmacists
  • Nurses
  • Psychologists
  • Support workers
  • Other team members

You and your healthcare team will work together to look after different areas of your health. This approach ensures you get the care you need and helps to develop a treatment plan specific to you.

You may work with a respirologist on a range of tests to understand your condition and symptoms. These can include: 

  • Lung function tests to measure how well your lungs are working
  • Exercise tests to measure how your lungs respond to physical activity
  • Pulse oximetry to measure how much oxygen is in your blood

You may also have X-rays or HRCT scans to look at the physical structure of your lungs. A radiologist, a specialist in taking X-rays, will work with your healthcare team to understand what is happening in your lungs.

Once you have received a diagnosis, other healthcare professionals may join your team, such as a specialist nurse, an occupational therapist, a cardiologist (heart specialist), or a therapist. They will all be part of your wider healthcare team and support the development of different treatment strategies.

These strategies can include helping you adapt your home to therapy like supplemental oxygen therapy. They can also support you through some of the mental health challenges of living with pulmonary fibrosis. Support groups can also help you through some of these challenges.

Quick Tip

If you have an in-person appointment scheduled with a member of your healthcare team, allow enough time to get to your appointment early. You will feel less anxious if you don’t have to rush. Arrive 15 minutes early and use that time to read over any notes or questions you may have.

“We spent about 90 minutes with [the respirologist] and she gave us the news in regard to the diagnosis…both my GP and the respirologist were aware of the fact that my friend had passed away with IPF that year. So, we were in shock in regard to the diagnosis with my friend dying so quickly. Of course, you get obviously a little despondent…The respirologist is excellent, she explained that what happened to my friend was very rare…So, I was a 'mush brain' as they call it. You can't process things, you think the negative, you think you're going to pass away within months…Then we started on the medication and my mindset changed. I did a 360, I had a chat with myself. I don't mope because of my condition. I don't feel sorry for myself. I don't dwell on what I have.”  – Paul, ON 
(@ 2 years post-diagnosis)*

* Name has been changed for privacy.

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