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Silicosis

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Other Names: Chronic silicosis; Accelerated silicosis; Acute silicosis; Experimental silicosis

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

Types

There are three types of silicosis:

Simple chronic silicosis, the most common type of silicosis, results from long-term exposure (usually more than 20 years) to low amounts of silica dust. Simple chronic silicosis may cause people to have difficulty breathing.

Accelerated silicosis occurs after 5 to 15 years of exposure of higher levels of silica. Swelling of the lungs and other symptoms occur faster in this type of silicosis than in the simple chronic form.

Acute silicosis results from short-term exposure (weeks or months) of large amounts of silica. The lungs become very inflamed and can fill with fluid, causing severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels. A cough, weight loss, and fatigue may also be present. Acute silicosis progresses rapidly and can be fatal within months.

Cause

Silicosis is caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica dust. When people breathe silica dust, they inhale tiny particles of silica that has crystallized. This silica dust can cause fluid buildup and scar tissue in the lungs that cuts down the ability to breathe.

Risk factors

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.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of silicosis may include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath with exercise, usually in patients who have progressive massive fibrosis
  • Weakness

Other symptoms of this disease, especially in acute silicosis, may also include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Severe breathing difficulty
  • Weight loss
  • Night Sweats
  • Chest pains

Diagnosis

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.

Prognosis

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

Possible Complications

Silicosis can lead to the following health problems:

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.

NIH genetic and rare disease info

Silicosis is a rare disease.


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