Little is known about when symptoms of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis first develop. We identified incident cases of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis-clinical syndrome (IPF-CS) from a UK primary care database and assessed the frequency of consultations for common symptoms in the 5 years prior to diagnosis. 1671 cases were identified with 5 years of data prior to diagnosis. Breathlessness was the most common symptom, followed by cough. Cases were significantly more likely than controls to experience these symptoms (p<0.001), even 4–5 years before diagnosis (OR for breathlessness for this period 2.79, 95% CI 2.13 to 3.65). This suggests that some patients with IPF may be symptomatic for more than 5 years before diagnosis.