Radiation pneumonitis, a side effect of radiotherapy

One of the options for cancer treatment is radiotherapy. In 2018, reasonably good results are achieved with radiotherapy. As a result, more patients are offered the treatment. As with any therapy, radiotherapy also has side effects. One of these side effects is radiation pneumonitis. This is pneumonia that you got as a result of radiotherapy.

What is radiation pneumonitis?

Radiation pneumonitis is a pneumonia that you as a patient have developed as a result of radiotherapy. So radiotherapy is the main cause. That is why it is also called sterile pneumonia. There is no virus or bacteria that causes the infection.

How does radiation pneumonitis develop?

When you receive radiation, not only the tumor is irradiated, but also the immediate healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. People are always looking for a way to irradiate as little healthy tissue as possible, but in 2018 it is still impossible not to irradiate healthy tissue. You can get pneumonitis or pneumonia if your healthy lung tissue is repeatedly irradiated. Over time, damage occurs to healthy tissue. A scar then forms at the site of the damage. That scar is a sensitive place in the lung for developing pneumonia. Smoking is an influencing factor. This means that the chance of developing radiation pneumonitis is higher if you are a smoker and are treated with radiotherapy.

When does radiation pneumonitis occur?

You do not always get pneumonitis due to radiotherapy immediately during treatment. However, you will then sustain damage that could later cause pneumonia. After all, not every patient gets radiation pneumonitis. You are still at risk if a scar has formed in the lung. This takes time. As a result, radiation pneumonitis often occurs quite late. This can vary from several weeks to months after completing radiotherapy. Although there are also known cases of pneumonitis due to radiotherapy up to 1 year after therapy.


Radiation pneumonitis causes symptoms just like any other pneumonia. Although sometimes the symptoms can differ a little. The symptoms of radiation pneumonitis are:

  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nocturnal shortness of breath
  • Cough that does not go away with medication

What is very different compared to regular pneumonia is that you will not develop a fever with radiation pneumonitis.


The best treatment is to prevent this pneumonitis. This is done by informing the patient of the risks of radiotherapy. If the patient smokes, it is also stated that this can increase the risk of radiation pneumonitis. Furthermore, science is increasingly looking for a way to irradiate less and less healthy tissue during radiotherapy. As a patient there is little you can do about this.


If you have radiation pneumonitis, it is very important to recognize it in time. Corticosteroids are then prescribed to suppress the pneumonia. This means that radiotherapy can still continue if you develop pneumonitis during therapy. Sometimes inhalants are also prescribed to suppress the cough. In severe cases, the patient may require additional oxygen.The doctor will try to continue the radiotherapy for as long as possible. This is because interrupting therapy can have a major influence on the end result of the treatment for the tumor . If the patient is too ill, therapy should still be interrupted. The patient is admitted to hospital and receives extra oxygen. Medicines are also administered there to make the patient less short of breath.

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