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