Learn About Silicosis

Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, a mineral that is part of sand, rock, and mineral ores such as quartz. It mostly affects workers exposed to silica dust in occupations such mining, glass manufacturing, and foundry work. Over time, exposure to silica particles causes scarring in the lungs, which can harm your ability to breathe.

Key Facts

  • There are three types of silicosis: acute, chronic, and accelerated.
  • It occurs in workers from mines, foundries, sandblasting, and glass manufacturing.
  • About 2 million US workers remain potentially exposed to occupational silica.
  • There is no cure for silicosis, but it can be prevented.

What Is Silicosis?

There are three types of silicosis:

  • Acute silicosis, which causes cough, weight loss, and fatigue within a few weeks or years of exposure to inhaled silica.
  • Chronic silicosis, which appears 10 to 30 years after exposure and can affect upper lungs and sometimes cause extensive scarring.
  • Accelerated silicosis, which occurs within 10 years of high-level exposure.

Silicosis can develop within a few weeks to even decades after exposure. When people breathe silica dust, they inhale tiny particles of the mineral silica. This silica dust can cause fluid buildup and scar tissue in the lungs that cuts down your ability to breathe. This can lead to lung scarring and cough, weight loss, and fatigue.

How Silicosis Affects Your Body

Silicosis affects the lungs by damaging the lining of the lung air sacs. Once this begins, it leads to scarring and, in some situations, to a condition called progressive massive fibrosis. This condition happens when there is severe scarring and stiffening of the lung, which makes it difficult to breathe.

People with acute silicosis experience cough, weight loss, tiredness, and may have fever or a sharp chest pain. You may also have shortness of breath over time, especially with chronic silicosis. Your healthcare provider might hear crackles or wheezing when they listen to your lungs. Having silicosis increases the risk of other problems, such as tuberculosis, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis.

Each type of silicosis affects the body somewhat differently:

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

Over time, lung capacity decreases, and people with silicosis may need support with oxygen and other devices to help them breathe.

How Serious Is Silicosis?

Silicosis can cause major lung damage and accounts for more than 100 deaths each year in the United States. Learn more about living with silicosis.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

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