Silicosis

Definition

Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in (inhaling) silica dust.

Causes

Silica is a common, naturally-occurring crystal. It is found in most rock beds. Silica dust forms during mining, quarrying, tunneling, and working with certain metal ores. Silica is a main part of sand, so glass workers and sand-blasters are also exposed to silica.

Three types of silicosis occur:

People who work in jobs where they are exposed to silica dust are at risk. These jobs include:

Intense exposure to silica can cause disease within a year. But it usually takes at least 10 to 15 years of exposure before symptoms occur. Silicosis has become less common since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created regulations requiring the use of protective equipment, which limits the amount of silica dust workers inhale.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will take a medical history. You'll be asked about your jobs (past and present), hobbies, and other activities that may have exposed you to silica. The provider will also do a physical exam.

Tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out similar diseases include:

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for silicosis. Removing the source of silica exposure is important to prevent the disease from getting worse. Supportive treatment includes cough medicine, bronchodilators, and oxygen if needed. Antibiotics are prescribed for respiratory infections as needed.

Treatment also includes limiting exposure to irritants and quitting smoking.

People with silicosis are at high risk of developing tuberculosis (TB). Silica is believed to interfere with the body's immune response to the bacteria that cause TB. Skin tests to check for exposure to TB should be done regularly. Those with a positive skin test should be treated with anti-TB drugs. Any change in the appearance of the chest x-ray may be a sign of TB.

People with severe silicosis may need to have a lung transplant.

Support Groups

Joining a support group where you can meet other people with silicosis or related diseases can help you understand your disease and adapt to its treatments.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Outcome varies, depending on the amount of damage to the lungs.

Possible Complications

Silicosis can lead to the following health problems:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you are exposed to silica at work and you have symptoms of the disease.

Prevention

If you work in a high-risk occupation or have a high-risk hobby, always wear a dust mask and do not smoke. You might also want to use other protection recommended by OSHA, such as a respirator.


Review Date: 6/22/2015
Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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