An acute exacerbation is the development of acute lung injury, usually resulting in acute respiratory distress syndrome, in a patient with a pre-existing fibrosing interstitial pneumonia. By definition, acute exacerbations are not caused by infection, heart failure, aspiration or drug reaction. Most patients with acute exacerbations have underlying usual interstitial pneumonia, either idiopathic or in association with a connective tissue disease, but the same process has been reported in patients with fibrotic non-specific interstitial pneumonia, fibrotic hypersensitivity pneumonitis, desquamative interstitial pneumonia and asbestosis. Occasionally an acute exacerbation is the initial manifestation of underlying interstitial lung disease. On biopsy, acute exacerbations appear as diffuse alveolar damage or bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP) superimposed upon the fibrosing interstitial pneumonia. Biopsies may be extremely confusing, because the acute injury pattern can completely obscure the underlying disease; a useful clue is that diffuse alveolar damage and organizing pneumonia should not be associated with old dense fibrosis and peripheral honeycomb change. Consultation with radiology can also be extremely helpful, because the fibrosing disease may be evident on old or concurrent computed tomography scans. The aetiology of acute exacerbations is unknown, and the prognosis is poor; however, some patients survive with high-dose steroid therapy.
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