If you work in a job around crystalline silica, you can breathe in dust that will cause lung damage. You can help to prevent silicosis if you use protective equipment.
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling very tiny crystalline particles of silicon dioxide, or silica. If you have it, you’ll have symptoms of coughing, inflammation (swelling) and fibrosis (scarring).
Those three symptoms identify a group of diseases called pneumoconioses. These diseases, caused by dust inhalation, are often described as work-related. They include diseases like asbestos-related conditions. Silicosis is a work-related lung disease — you get it because you’re breathing in silica crystals at your job.
You can’t cure or reverse silicosis, but your providers can treat it.
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Silicosis may develop in three ways. They are:
Silicosis is mostly related to the job that you do. If you work in the following industries, you’re more likely to develop silicosis than other people.
Silica interacts with the respiratory tract in a harmful way. It seems to damage alveolar macrophages. These macrophages are part of the immune system and are the respiratory system’s core line of defense.
There are three main symptoms of silicosis:
These signs and symptoms can cause:
Silicosis is caused by the damage to your lungs that happens when you breathe in silica dust. This usually happens in an occupational (job-related) setting.
No, silicosis isn’t contagious. It’s not caused by a virus or bacteria. You can’t get it from someone or give it to someone if you have it.
Your healthcare provider will begin by taking a medical history and making a physical examination. Asking questions about how long you may have worked in a job known to cause silicosis will be an important part of the process.
Your provider might find silicosis on an imaging test even if you don’t have symptoms. They might hear abnormal breath sounds while they examine you.
You may have the following tests:
You can only manage silicosis. You can’t cure silicosis. Some tips for managing silicosis include:
In some cases, your provider may recommend lung transplant surgery.
There are, of course, ongoing clinical trials working on finding a treatment for silicosis. Your provider might suggest that you participate. Researchers are using drugs called antifibrotics to treat some forms of silicosis. While some of these are experimental, one drug called nintedanib (OFEV®) is FDA approved.
Despite the fact that even ancient Greeks and Romans recognized silicosis and the risk of inhaling dust, people still get the disease.
If you aren’t able to avoid professions that are risky, you can reduce your risk by using the appropriate personal protective equipment and following workplace safety policies.
If your work puts you at high-risk, get screened through your employer. Early detection is key to preventing severe disease.
Your outlook depends on many factors, including how much silica you’ve been exposed to and the length of time you were exposed. Your age and whether you have other diseases matter, as does whether or not your exposure continues.
The outlook for people who develop progressive massive fibrosis is less positive.
People who have silicosis are at increased risk for the following conditions:
If you have silicosis, you should:
If you work in a silica-related industry, you should have regular check-ups to make sure you’re healthy. If you experience any coughing or trouble breathing, see your provider.
No, silicosis isn’t cancer. It doesn’t cause your cells to grow out of control. However, silicosis may be a factor in developing lung cancer.
Exercise may be helpful if you have silicosis. You should discuss your exercise plans with your healthcare provider. They might suggest pulmonary rehabilitation, which includes exercises to help you improve your breathing.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you develop a cough and trouble breathing, and you’ve worked with silica and its dust for years, you may have silicosis. This lung condition is serious and has no cure, but it can be treated. Talk to your healthcare provider and take steps to stay healthy.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/18/2022.
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