Last Updated 05/07/2020
Author:Amy Ahasic, MD, MPH, FCCP
- Pneumoconiosis is caused by workplace exposure to dusts in the air that are breathed into the lungs (inhaled).
- Asbestos, silica, and coal dust are the most common causes of pneumoconiosis.
- Pneumoconiosis can be prevented with appropriate protection.
- There is no cure for pneumoconiosis.
Pneumoconiosis is a term for any lung disease caused by dusts that inhaled and travel deep into the lungs, causing damage. Exposure to the dusts that can cause pneumoconiosis occurs in the workplace. The most common cause of pneumoconiosis is breathing in asbestos, silica (sand or rock dust), or coal dust.
How Pneumoconiosis affects your body
When you breathe in dusts, the particles can land in your airway or deep in your lungs. How far into the lungs the dust goes depends on the size and shape of the particles.
The severity of pneumoconiosis depends on the type and length of time you breathed in dust and how much of your lungs are affected.
Pneumoconiosis sometimes causes no symptoms. In other cases, symptoms can be severe and even result in death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2010, there were more than 2000 deaths in the United States related to pneumoconiosis. There are many more people living with pneumoconiosis.
After the dust particles settle in your lungs, your immune system (body’s defense) may try to get rid of or surround them (causing inflammation) to prevent lung damage. In some cases, the inflammation is severe enough that scar tissue, called pulmonary fibrosis, forms. If the inflammation or fibrosis is severe enough or involves a large enough area of the lungs, your breathing will be affected.
Symptoms of Pneumoconiosis
If you have pneumoconiosis, you may have no symptoms at all, especially early on. Symptoms may show up even long after exposure to dusts has happened.
The most common symptoms of pneumoconiosis are:
- Coughing up yellow or green mucus;
- Shortness of breath;
- Runny and stuffy nose starting a few days before chest symptoms;
- Feeling run down or tired;
- Having sore ribs from long periods of coughing;
- Not being able to be as active; and
- A wheezing or a whistling sound when you breathe.
Contact your health care provider if you have these symptoms.
What causes Pneumoconiosis?
Many dusts can cause pneumoconiosis. The most common dusts known to cause pneumoconiosis are asbestos, silica, and coal dust.
What are risk factors for Pneumoconiosis?
The risk of developing pneumoconiosis is higher if you have been exposed to mineral dusts at high levels and for long periods of time. Not wearing proper protective gear also increases your risk.
If you are exposed to dusts at work, pneumoconiosis may be diagnosed by regular tests done there. It also may be diagnosed if you develop symptoms. These tests may be repeated every year.
Talk to your health care provider if you have been exposed to toxic dusts and have the symptoms mentioned here.
Pneumoconiosis is diagnosed based on:
- Your history, including details about your symptoms and exposures;
- A physical exam;
- Lung function tests; and
- Chest X-ray or other imaging, like a computed tomography (CT) scan of your chest.
There are no medications to treat pneumoconiosis, and there’s no cure. Most treatments help limit further damage to the lung, decrease symptoms, and improve your quality of life.
You may be given an inhaler if you have symptoms of asthma or other chronic respiratory disease. Your health care provider may recommend a program to increase your ability to tolerate exercise. You may need oxygen therapy if your levels are low either all the time, when you are active, or when you sleep.
In some severe cases, your health care provider may refer you for a lung transplant.
If you’re a smoker, you should quit. Quitting cigarette smoking (or smoking other drugs) is important to prevent your lung function from getting worse.
Pneumoconiosis is different for every person. Some people have very mild disease that does not get worse over time. Other people have more severe disease or disease that gets much worse over time. Because there is no cure, you should take care of your health as much as you can. Make sure you see your health care provider regularly to manage symptoms, check your lung function, and watch for other diseases that can develop.
Avoiding the dusts mentioned above is important for preventing and treating pneumoconiosis. If you smoke, you should quit. To help protect your lungs, wear a mask over your mouth and nose if you’re exposed to those dusts. Pneumoconiosis does not usually result from exposure outside work because the dust levels in the environment are much lower.
If you’ve been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, contact your state worker compensation board for information about how you can file a claim. Ask your health care provider about lung disease support groups in your area.
Questions to ask your health care provider
Making notes before your visit and taking along a trusted family member or friend can help you through the first appointment with your provider. Here are some questions to help you discuss pneumoconiosis with you provider:
- How often do I need to come to the doctor?
- Will I need to be on oxygen?
- How will having pneumoconiosis affect my life expectancy?
- Should I have a pneumonia vaccine? When can I get a flu shot?
- (If you are a smoker) How can I stop smoking? What treatments or help is available to me?