What Is Silicosis? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Nick Villalobos, MD
Was this helpful?
0

Silicosis is a type of chronic lung condition. It occurs as a result of long-term inhalation of crystalline silica dust. It is commonly referred to as an occupational lung disease because this exposure may occur at your workplace. Silica is found in certain types of rock, such as sand and quartz. Inhaling silica dust over many years can cause scarring in the lungs, which can result in symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath.

Read on to learn about the symptoms of silicosis. This guide also includes information about causes and treatments, when to contact a doctor, and more.

Silicosis definition

Silicosis is an occupational lung disease that develops from long-term exposure to crystalline silica dust. Inhaling silica dust particles over a number of years can result in permanent scarring of the lungs.

What are the symptoms of silicosis?

There is a closeup of a person hammering bricks.
Sergey Filimonov/Stocksy United

The main symptoms of silicosis include:

  • shortness of breath
  • persistent cough
  • weakness
  • tiredness

Symptoms can take years to develop. In some cases, you may not experience symptoms until you no longer work with silica dust.

What causes silicosis?

Long-term inhalation of silica dust particles causes silicosis. Around 2.3 million people in the United States face silica exposure at work, according to the United States Department of Labor.

Occupations where silica exposure is a risk include:

  • construction work involving cutting or breaking stone, brick, or concrete
  • foundry work
  • manufacturing work involving silica flour
  • pottery work
  • quarrying
  • slate work
  • stonemasonry

Silicosis is a type of pneumoconiosis. Learn more about the causes of pneumoconiosis.

How much silica dust causes silicosis?

Silicosis develops from long-term frequent exposure to silica dust.

Different stone types have different amounts of silica. Even if you have exposure to silica from working with stone, the amount of silica dust you breathe in can vary.

Types of stone that have more than 70% silica include:

  • sandstone
  • gritstone
  • quartzite

Other types of stone that contain a potentially high amount of silica include:

  • concrete, with 25–70% silica
  • shale, with 40–60% silica
  • china stone, with up to 50% silica
  • slate, with up to 40% silica

Silica can also be found in:

  • brick
  • granite
  • ironstone
  • basalt
  • dolerite
  • limestone
  • chalk
  • marble

Silicosis occurs from frequent long-term exposure to silica dust. It typically develops from 5–20 years of exposure, though acute silicosis can develop from a few months of heavy exposure.

What are the treatments for silicosis?

There is currently no cure for silicosis, according to the American Lung Association. But your doctor can recommend treatments to help you to ease symptoms and slow the progression of the condition.

Treatments your doctor may recommend include:

  • bronchodilators to relax lung muscles and widen your airway
  • supplemental oxygen to get more air into your lungs
  • pulmonary rehabilitation to help you with exercising
  • surgery, such as lung transplant, in severe cases

Your doctor can explain the treatments they recommend in more detail and answer any questions you may have.

Other steps you can take to manage your symptoms include:

  • avoiding further exposure to silica and other irritants
  • quitting smoking, if you currently smoke, since smoking can speed up the progression of silicosis
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • remaining as active as possible and getting enough regular exercise
  • keeping on top of your flu and pneumococcal pneumonia vaccinations to reduce the risk of infections

When should I reach out to a doctor?

Contact a doctor as soon as you have concerns about silicosis.

You may not experience symptoms for up to 20 years following the beginning of exposure to silica dust. Contacting your doctor can help make sure you begin treatment to slow the progression of the condition as early as possible.

How do doctors diagnose silicosis?

To assist with reaching an accurate diagnosis, your doctor may take a full medical history and carry out a physical examination. They may also ask questions about your work history to find out if and for how long you have worked around silica dust.

Your doctor may then order tests to confirm the diagnosis. Possible tests include:

Your doctor may also recommend a tuberculosis (TB) test because having silicosis can increase your risk of developing TB. The doctor can explain this and any other tests they arrange in more detail and answer any questions you may have.

Learn more about TB.

What are the complications of silicosis?

Silicosis can increase your risk of various complications. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, possible complications of silicosis include:

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about the complications of silicosis.

Can I prevent silicosis?

Silicosis can take many years to develop after you’ve experienced long-term exposure to silica dust. Due to this, you may not be able to prevent it.

However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued standards for the use of respirable crystalline silica in construction, general industry, and maritime.

The standards help ensure that silica dust exposure is below the allowed exposure limit.

Wearing the right protective equipment while working with silica can also help reduce the amount of silica dust you inhale.

Am I entitled to compensation for silicosis?

If you have silicosis as a result of occupational exposure to silica dust particles, you may be entitled to compensation.

Contact the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs for more information.

Summary

Silicosis is an occupational lung disease that develops from long-term inhalation of silica dust. Common symptoms include shortness of breath and a persistent cough.

You are more likely to develop silicosis if you work with types of stone such as sandstone, gritstone, and quartzite. You may not experience symptoms of silicosis until 20 years after your initial exposure to silica dust particles.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about silicosis. They will be able to carry out tests to reach an accurate diagnosis and advise on treatments to help you to manage your symptoms and slow down the progression of the condition.

Was this helpful?
0
Medical Reviewer: Nick Villalobos, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 20
View All Lungs, Breathing and Respiration Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.