Scarring of the lung tissue caused by inhaling dust containing silica

  • More common over the age of 40
  • More common in males due to increased risk of occupational exposure
  • Caused by exposure to silica dust; smoking aggravates the disease
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

Once common in developed countries, silicosis is a disorder that leads to irreversible lung damage. It tends to affect people who work with sandstone, granite, slate, and coal, as well as foundry workers, potters, and sandblasters. The number of new cases of silicosis diagnosed each year in the UK is now less than 100, due to safer working practices.

Most people with silicosis have the long-term form of the disease, which usually develops following 20–30 years of exposure to silica dust. The acute form of silicosis, which tends to develop suddenly after only a few months’ exposure to a high level of silica dust, can lead to death in less than a year.

Unlike most other dust particles that are breathed into the lungs, silica dust causes a strong inflammatory response in lung tissue. Over time, the inflammation causes thickening and scarring, and the lungs become less efficient in supplying oxygen to the blood. Symptoms of silicosis may be more severe and the condition may progress more rapidly in people who smoke.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of chronic and acute silicosis are the same but develop over different time periods. They include:

  • Coughing up sputum.

  • Shortness of breath on exertion.

  • Tightness of the chest.

A complication of both forms of silicosis is an increased susceptibility to tuberculosis. Even without further exposure to silica dust, silicosis may progress and may eventually lead to respiratory failure.

What might be done?

You should tell your doctor if your past or current work has involved handling materials that produce silica dust. He or she will probably arrange for a chest X-ray and for lung function tests to assess the level of damage to the lungs. There is no treatment for silicosis, but avoiding further exposure to the dust may slow the progress of the disease. If you have silicosis, you should not smoke, and, if you cannot avoid exposure to silica dust at work, your doctor may advise you to change your job. If you have severe silicosis, you may be given home oxygen therapy to ease your breathing.

Can it be prevented?

If you think that you are at risk of silicosis, you should discuss the matter with your doctor and your employer. It is very important that you and your employer take immediate measures to reduce the amount of silica dust that you inhale. Appropriate ventilation, dust-control facilities, face masks, and showers should all be used.

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.

Back to top