Understanding Silicosis

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a chronic lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica dust. Silica is the second most common mineral in the earth's crust. It is a major component of sand, rock, and mineral ores like quartz. People who work in jobs where they can be breathing in these tiny silica bits—like sandblasting, mining, construction and many others—are at risk for silicosis. 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 your ability to breathe.

There are three types of silicosis:

  • Chronic silicosis, the most common type of silicosis, usually occurs after 10 or more years of exposure to crystalline silica at low levels.
  • Accelerated silicosis occurs 5 to 10 years after exposure and is caused by exposure to higher levels of crystalline silica.
  • Acute silicosis can occur after only weeks or months of exposure to very high levels of crystalline silica. Acute silicosis progresses rapidly and can be fatal within months. 

Who gets silicosis?

About two million U.S. workers are estimated to be occupationally exposed to free crystalline silica dusts. More than 100,000 of them work in the following jobs and are at risk for developing silicosis:

  • Highway and bridge construction and repair
  • Building construction, demolition, and repair
  • Abrasive blasting
  • Masonry work
  • Concrete finishing
  • Drywall finishing
  • Rock drilling
  • Mining
  • Sand and gravel screening
  • Rock crushing (for road base)

How serious is silicosis?

Silicosis is chronic and cannot be cured. Treatments ease symptoms and address infections that people with silicosis are prone to getting. Depending on the type of silicosis, people may live for many years or only a few months.

How does silicosis affect your body?

Generally, the silica dust affects the lungs ability to work correctly. Each type of silicosis affects the body somewhat differently:

  • In simple chronic silicosis, the silica dust causes areas of swelling in the lungs and chest lymph nodes, which causes breathing difficulty.
  • In accelerated silicosis, swelling in the lungs and symptoms occur faster than in simple silicosis.
  • In acute silicosis, the lungs become very inflamed and can fill with fluid, which causes severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels.

Anyone with silicosis may suffer from several complications:

  • Increased risk for lung infections and tuberculosis.
  • Progressive massive fibrosis—severe scarring and stiffening of the lung, which makes it difficult to breathe. Progressive massive fibrosis can occur in either simple or accelerated silicosis, but is more common in the accelerated form.
  • Respiratory failure.


Learn more about silicosis symptoms, diagnosis and treatment