Diagnosing and Treating Pneumoconiosis
Pneumoconiosis may be diagnosed by routine workplace surveillance in exposed workers, or it may be diagnosed because symptoms develop in a person previously exposed to mineral dusts. Workplace surveillance programs may involve workers having breathing tests and/or chest X-rays every year or periodically to look for abnormalities.
What to Expect
Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and also about past exposures to dusts like asbestos or silica. It is common that you would be referred to a pulmonologist (lung doctor) for your evaluation. You may also be referred to an occupational medicine provider to find out more about past exposures and to evaluate you further.
How Pneumoconiosis Is Diagnosed
Pneumoconiosis is diagnosed using several pieces of information:
- Your history, including the details about your symptoms and exposures.
- A physical examination
- Pulmonary function tests (breathing tests)
- Chest X-ray or CT scan ("CAT scan") of the chest.
Chest X-rays or CT scans may show your health-care provider:
- nodules ("spots") or masses
- areas of inflammation
- excess fluid in or around the lungs
Sometimes additional, more invasive testing is necessary to diagnose pneumoconiosis. Evaluation might include bronchoscopy in which a thin tube with a camera is inserted through your mouth into your trachea (windpipe) to look at your airways, to obtain a fluid sample to look for infection, or to take small biopsy samples of lung tissue. If more lung tissue is needed, surgery may be necessary to take a larger biopsy specimen. While invasive procedures and biopsies are generally not necessary to diagnose pneumoconiosis, these tests may be necessary to exclude other diagnoses.
How Pneumoconiosis Is Treated
There are no specific treatments or medications for pneumoconiosis, and there is no cure. Most treatments for patients with pneumoconiosis are aimed at limiting further damage to the lung, decreasing symptoms and improving quality of life.
Patients may be treated with inhaled medications (inhalers) if they have symptoms of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A pulmonary rehabilitation program may be recommended to improve a patient's ability to exercise. Oxygen is prescribed if patients have a low oxygen level. Some patients need to wear oxygen all the time, while others only need it when they are active or while they sleep.
In rare, very severe cases, your healthcare provider may refer you for a lung transplant. You would have many tests to find out if you are healthy enough to undergo a lung transplant and if it would improve or prolong your life.
If you are a smoker, you will be strongly advised to quit smoking. Quitting cigarette smoking (or smoking any other drugs) is very important to prevent further decline in lung function. Smoking with some types of pneumoconiosis can actually increase your chance of developing lung cancer more than just smoking without pneumoconiosis. The Lung Associations offers many resources for help quitting smoking. Call our Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNG-USA or visit FFSonline.org to learn more.