Byssinosis: Brown Lungs and What You Need to Know About Them

Written by Carmella Wint and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Byssinosis is a rare lung disease. It is caused by inhaling hemp, flax, and cotton particles. It is sometimes referred to as brown lung disease. It is a form of occupational asthma.

In the United States, byssinosis occurs almost exclusively in people who work with unprocessed cotton. People who open the bales of cotton during their first stage of processing are at highest risk. There is a type of byssinosis called grain worker’s lung. It can appear in people who work with grains.

Guidelines and laws in the United States have helped keep the number of people who get byssinosis at a minimum. It is still common in developing countries where safety measures are not in place.

Causes of Byssinosis

Byssinosis is most common in textile industry workers. It is caused by inhalation of raw flax, hemp, cotton dust, and similar materials.

Smoking may increase the risk of developing byssinosis. A history of asthma or allergies may also increase risk.

Symptoms of Byssinosis

Symptoms of byssinosis usually appear during the beginning of the work week. They typically wane by the end of the week. If you are exposed to dust particles for long periods of time, you may experience symptoms during the entire week.

Symptoms of byssinosis are similar to asthma. They include:

  • tightness in the chest
  • wheezing
  • coughing

Symptoms of byssinosis usually go away after dust exposure is over. However lung function can be permanently impaired if exposure is ongoing.

Diagnosing Byssinosis

To diagnose byssinosis, your doctor will ask you questions about recent activities and your work. The goal is to determine whether you might have been in contact with textile dust.

Your doctor will probably perform a physical exam to check your lungs. Chest X-rays and CT scans of your lungs may also be ordered. Pulmonary function tests are often used to check lung health.

A peak flow meter tests how quickly you can expel air from your lungs. Your doctor may give you a peak flow meter to test your lungs throughout the work week. If your breathing changes during certain parts of the week or day, this may help your doctor determine when and where you are being exposed.

Treatment Options for Byssinosis

The main treatment for byssinosis is avoiding exposure to harmful dust.

To relieve mild to moderate symptoms, your doctor may prescribe bronchodilators. These drugs help open constricted airways.

In more severe cases of byssinosis, inhaled corticosteroids may be prescribed. These reduce lung inflammation. However, these drugs can cause fungal infections of the mouth and throat. You can reduce this risk by rinsing out your mouth after inhaling the medication.

If your blood oxygen levels are low, you may need supplemental oxygen therapy. For chronic byssinosis, a nebulizer or other respiratory treatment may be recommended.

Breathing exercises and physical activity can also help improve lung health and symptoms.

You may need to quit your job. Even though symptoms diminish towards the end of the work week, your lungs are still accumulating damage. Exposure to cotton, hemp, and flax dust over a period of years can cause irreversible damage to the lungs.

Preventing Byssinosis

Byssinosis is preventable.

If you work in a position that puts you at risk, wear a mask while working or near dust.

Companies in the United States have a legal obligation to protect you from dangerous products at work. Under the guidelines created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, your employer should provide you with protective gear. This means giving you a respirator or mask, if you work around textile dust.

If you are a smoker, quitting can also reduce your risk of byssinosis

Long-Term Outlook of Byssinosis

Byssinosis typically goes away after the exposure is over. It is usually not considered a life-threatening or chronic disease. However, it is important to identify the cause of your byssinosis. This can keep it from returning once treated.

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