Last Updated 05/06/2020
Author:Sai Praveen Haranath, MBBS, MPH, FCCP
- There are 3 types of silicosis: acute, chronic, and accelerated.
- Silicosis occurs in people who work in mines, foundries, sandblasting, and glass manufacturing.
- About 2 million US workers are potentially exposed to silica at work.
- There is no cure for silicosis, but it can be prevented.
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, which is part of sand, rock, and minerals. It mostly affects workers exposed to silica dust in jobs such as mining, glass production, and metal work. Over time, exposure to silica causes scarring in the lungs, which can harm your ability to breathe.
How Silicosis affects your body
Silicosis affects the lungs by damaging the lining of the lung’s air sacs, called alveoli. This damage leads to scarring and, in some situations, stiffening of the lung, which makes it difficult to breathe.
Silicosis can cause major lung damage and accounts for more than 100 deaths each year in the United States.
Each type of silicosis affects the body somewhat differently:
- In acute silicosis, the lungs become swollen (inflamed) and can fill with fluid. This causes severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen.
- In chronic silicosis, the silica dust causes areas of swelling in the lungs and chest lymph nodes, which makes breathing more difficult.
- In accelerated silicosis, inflammation in the lungs and symptoms occur faster than in chronic silicosis.
Over time, the lungs can handle less air, and people with silicosis may need support with oxygen therapy and devices to help them breathe.
Symptoms of Silicosis
Symptoms of silicosis can appear from a few weeks to many years after exposure to silica dust and typically worsen over time. Symptoms of silicosis are:
- Cough is an early symptom and develops over time with exposure to inhaled silica.
- In acute silicosis, fever, sharp chest pain, and difficulty breathing can come on suddenly.
- You may see phlegm production
- You may hear wheezing and crackling sounds in your lungs.
- In chronic silicosis, you may only have an abnormal chest X-ray in the beginning, and then slowly develop a cough and breathing difficulty.
As lung scarring worsens over time, you may see signs of chronic lung disease, such as leg swelling, increased breathing rate, and a bluish color around the lips.
What causes Silicosis?
Silicosis is caused by exposure to silica, which comes from working with soil, sand, rock, and minerals. Jobs that are known to expose workers to inhaled silica include those in:
- Glass manufacturing;
- Quarrying; and
What are risk factors for Silicosis?
Breathing in (or inhaling) crystalline silica causes silicosis. The main risk factor is exposure to silica dust.
If you work or have worked in a job that exposed you to inhaled silica and you have a cough, mucus, or breathing problems, you should be checked for silicosis.
Anyone who is exposed to inhaled silica at work should get regular health checkups and be watched for signs and symptoms of lung disease. In addition, if you have a cough, mucus, or breathing problem that is not improving, contact your health care provider.
Your health care provider will likely order the following tests:
- Physical exam
- Chest X-ray to look for lung scarring and to determine the type of silicosis
- Breathing tests
- Chest computed tomography (CT) scan
- Bronchoscopy to look at the inside of your lungs
- Lung biopsy
It may take multiple office visits and tests to diagnose silicosis. Other tests may be needed to check for related diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB).
There is no cure for silicosis. Treatments you may receive include:
- Medicine such as inhaled steroids to decrease sputum production;
- Other inhaled medicines to relax your air tubes, or bronchi;
- Oxygen therapy; and
- A breathing machine, or ventilator, in severe cases.
To keep the disease from getting worse, stay away from other sources of silica, indoor and outdoor air pollution, allergens, and smoke. You may consider counseling to discuss changing your job.
Patients with silicosis need to stay healthy by being active and avoiding further exposure to silica. People with silicosis have a higher risk of other respiratory problems, such as TB, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis.
Here are a few tips for managing silicosis:
- Take the medications your provider prescribes for you.
- See any necessary specialists.
- If you smoke, quit.
- Get yearly vaccinations, such as pneumococcal and influenza vaccines.
- Watch carefully for the development of TB or other infections.
- Educate yourself about the disease.
- Consider enrolling in clinical trials.
- Have a plan to manage flare-ups of the disease.
Many people with silicosis have chronic symptoms and a shorter lifespan. However, over the past few decades, supportive care and earlier detection have greatly improved survival.
Silicosis is preventable. If you work in a job that exposes you to silica dust, your employer by law must give you the equipment and clothing you need to protect yourself. Wear it at all times where you are exposed to silica.
Here are other steps to take at work:
- Avoid working in dust whenever possible.
- Use water sprays and ventilation when working in confined areas.
- Shave off your beard and/or mustache if you wear a tight-fitting respirator to get a good seal to your face.
- Go to lung screenings and other health programs offered at work.
- Do not eat, drink, or use tobacco products in dusty areas at work.
- Park your car in an area where it will not be contaminated with silica.
- Wear disposable or washable work clothes.
- If possible, shower and change into clean clothes before leaving. This will help prevent you from bringing silica into other work areas, your car, and your home, and it will protect your family and others from silica dust exposure.
The American Lung Association recommends that patients and caregivers join its Living with Lung Disease support community to connect with others facing this disease. To talk to a trained lung professional, call the American Lung Association’s Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA. They can help answer your questions and connect you with additional support.
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. You can ask your provider questions such as the following:
- What tests do I need to confirm my silicosis diagnosis?
- How often should I visit the office to be monitored?
- What can I do or take to help with my symptoms?
- What is my prognosis?
- Are counseling resources available?
- Where can I look for information about methods to obtain compensation?
- What options are available to help me quit smoking?
- What vaccines do I need?