Silicosis Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors
What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?
Symptoms of silicosis can appear from a few weeks to many years after exposure to silica dust. Symptoms typically worsen over time as scarring in the lungs occurs.
Cough is an early symptom and develops over time with exposure to silica that is inhaled.
In acute silicosis, you may experience fever and sharp chest pain along with breathing difficulty. These symptoms can come on suddenly.
In chronic silicosis, you may only have an abnormal chest X-ray in the beginning and then slowly develop a cough and breathing difficulty. More than a third of people with silicosis have phlegm production and cough. Chronic bronchitis-like symptoms may occur, and the lungs have additional sounds called wheezes and crackles. As extensive scarring progresses over time, you may see signs of chronic lung disease such as leg swelling, increased breathing rate, and bluish discoloration of the lips.
What Causes Silicosis?
Silicosis is caused by exposure to crystalline silica, which comes from chipping, cutting, drilling, or grinding soil, sand, granite, or other minerals. Any occupation where the earth’s crust is disturbed can cause silicosis. A long list of occupations are known that expose workers to crystalline silica that is inhaled. These include:
- Various forms of mining, such as coal and hard rock mining
- Construction work
- Tunnel work
- Sand blasting
- Glass manufacturing
- Ceramics work
- Steel industry work
- Stone cutting
What Are Risk Factors of Silicosis?
Breathing crystalline silica causes silicosis and the main risk factor is exposure to silica dust.
You can prevent silicosis by limiting exposure. There are national guidelines on exposure limits over a lifetime of working.
If you work in a job that exposes you to silica dust, your employer must, by law, give you the correct equipment and clothing you need to protect yourself. You are responsible for using it—always—and for taking other steps to protect yourself and your family as you leave your job site and head home. NIOSH also recommends that medical examinations occur before job placement or upon entering a trade, and at least every 3 years thereafter.
Patients with silicosis have an increased risk of other problems, such as tuberculosis, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis. If you are a smoker, quitting may help, as smoking damages the lungs.
When to See Your Doctor
Any person who works in industries with exposure to inhaled silica should get regular health checkups and be monitored for signs and symptoms of lung disease. In addition, if you have a cough, phlegm, or breathing difficulty that is not improving, you should be closely evaluated by your doctor. Some people with acute silicosis also have fever, weight loss, and fatigue.
This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.