Occupational Lung Diseases

A variety of disorders caused by inhaling damaging dusts or gases at work

  • More common over the age of 40
  • More common in males due to increased risk of occupational exposure
  • Smoking causes some disorders to progress more quickly
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

In developed countries, the number of cases of most occupational lung diseases is decreasing. This is partly due to the improved measures now used to protect workers, such as masks and protective clothing. In addition, regulations are in place that limit the maximum exposure levels for inhaled substances. A decline in the number of workers in industries such as mining in developed countries has also led to a reduction in occupational lung diseases. However, the diseases are still common in developing countries where workers are less likely to have adequate protection.

Occupational lung diseases are initiated by the body’s reaction to small solid particles or gases that are breathed into the lungs while a person is in the workplace. The nature of the lung disorder depends on the type and amount of particles that are inhaled.

What are the types?

Occupational lung diseases associated with mineral dusts include coalworkers’ pneumoconiosis, silicosis, and asbestosis (see Asbestos-related diseases). In the most severe cases, these disorders can result in irreversible scarring of lung tissue. Asbestos can also cause thickening of the pleura (the two-layered membrane that separates the lungs from the chest wall) and mesothelioma, a form of cancer that affects the pleura. Silicosis and coalworkers’ pneumoconiosis are rare in developed countries. However, the incidence of mesothelioma is still increasing because it takes many years for symptoms to develop. Workers who have been exposed to asbestos before the introduction of safer working practices are still at risk of developing the disease at a later date.

Exposure to certain biological dusts, spores, and chemicals may induce allergic reactions, causing inflammation of the alvoli (air sacs) inside the lungs (see Extrinsic allergic alveolitis) or asthma. Although occupational asthma has probably been occurring for centuries, doctors have only relatively recently begun to recognize the extent of the disorder. The number of cases of occupational asthma has fallen in recent years but it remains a major health concern.

What might be done?

If you have respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath or a persistent cough, you should consult your doctor. Tell the doctor if your past or current occupation has involved working with dust or other irritants that could be causing your symptoms. He or she may arrange for you to have a chest X-ray and lung function tests to look for evidence of lung damage.

If your doctor suspects that you have occupational asthma, he or she will need to identify a trigger substance and confirm its presence in your workplace.

It is vital that you have no further contact with the substance that is causing your symptoms. If you are not able to do this, you will have to consider changing your occupation to prevent a deterioration in your condition. Avoiding these triggers should help to relieve symptoms. Otherwise, treatment is the same as for other forms of asthma.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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