Silicosis

Written by Rachel Nall | Published on September 23, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD on September 23, 2013

What Is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a condition caused by inhaling too much silica over a long period of time. Silica is a crystal-like mineral found in sand and rocks, such as granite. Silica can have deadly consequences for people who work with stone, concrete, glass, or other forms of rock.

What Causes Silicosis?

Any level of silica exposure can result in silicosis. There are three types of silicosis: acute, accelerated, and chronic.

Acute silicosis forms a few weeks or months after high levels of silica exposure. This condition progresses rapidly.

Accelerated silicosis comes on five to ten years after exposure. 

Chronic silicosis occurs ten years or longer after silica exposure. Even low exposure levels can cause chronic silicosis.

Silica dust particles act as tiny blades on the lungs. When silica is inhaled through the nose or mouth, particles create small cuts that can scar the lung tissue. Scarred lungs do not open and close as well, making breathing difficult. 

The U.S. Department of Safety calls silica a “carcinogen.” This means that silica can cause cancer, including lung cancer.

Who Is at Risk for Silicosis?

Factory, mine, and masonry workers are at the greatest risk for silicosis because they deal with silica in their work. Silica is a highly common mineral found in sand, rock, and quartz. People who work in the following industries are at greatest risk:

  • asphalt manufacturing
  • concrete production
  • crushing or drilling rock and concrete
  • demolition work
  • glass manufacturing
  • masonry
  • mining
  • quarrying
  • sandblasting
  • tunneling

Workers and their employers must take steps to protect themselves from silica exposure.

What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?

Silicosis is a progressive condition, meaning it gets worse over time. Symptoms may start out as an intense cough, shortness of breath, or weakness. Other possible symptoms are chest pain, fever, night sweats, weight loss, and respiratory fever. 

Having silicosis increases your risk for respiratory infections, including tuberculosis.

How Is Silicosis Diagnosed?

People who suspect that they have silicosis should seek medical attention. The physician will ask questions about when or how the patient may have been exposed to silica. They can test lung function with pulmonary function tests. 

A chest X-ray can test for scar tissue. On X-rays, silica scars appear as small, white spots.

A bronchoscopy may also be conducted. This procedure involves passing a thin, flexible tube down the throat. A camera attached to the tube allows the physician to view the lung tissue. Tissue and fluid samples can also be taken during a bronchoscopy.

How Is Silicosis Treated?

Silicosis does not have a specific medical treatment. The aim of treatment is to reduce symptoms. Cough medicine can help with cough symptoms, while antibiotics can help to treat respiratory infections. Inhalers can be used to open up the airways. Some patients wear oxygen masks to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood. 

Patients with silicosis should avoid further silica exposure. Because smoking damages lung tissue, quitting smoking can help.

Because silicosis patients are at higher risk for tuberculosis (TB), they should be tested regularly for the condition. A physician can prescribe medications to treat TB.

Patients with severe silicosis may require a lung transplant.

What Is the Outlook for Silicosis?

Silicosis has become less common over time, thanks to increased work safety rules (MedlinePlus, 2013). However, silicosis can still occur.

There is no cure for silicosis. After diagnosis, a person may live a few months to several years (American Lung Association, 2013). The prognosis depends on how severe the condition is. Intense lung scarring can develop in both accelerated and chronic silicosis. Scarring destroys healthy lung tissue, reducing the amount of oxygen the lungs can transmit to the blood.

Preventing Silicosis

Workers can wear special masks called respirators to keep from inhaling silica. These masks may be marked for “abrasive blasting” use. 

Water sprays and wet cutting methods reduce the risk for silica exposure. Work spaces should meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. This includes proper ventilation. Employers can monitor air quality at worksites, to ensure that excess silica is not in the air. Employers must report all diagnosed incidents of silicosis.

Workers should eat, drink, and smoke away from silica dust. They should also wash their hands before doing any of these activities to reduce silica dust on the hands.

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