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Learn About Pneumoconiosis

Pneumoconiosis is a general term given to any lung disease caused by dusts that are breathed in and then deposited deep in the lungs causing damage. Pneumoconiosis is usually considered an occupational lung disease because exposure to the dusts that can cause pneumoconiosis often are found in the workplace.

Different types of dust cause different types of pneumoconiosis; however, not all types of dust are known to cause pneumoconiosis.

Key Facts

  • Pneumoconiosis is caused by workplace exposure to airborne dusts that are breathed into the lung.
  • Exposure to asbestos, silica, and coal dust are the most common causes of pneumoconiosis. Most types of dust are not known to cause pneumoconiosis.
  • There is no cure for pneumoconiosis, but it can be prevented with appropriate respiratory protection.

What Is Pneumoconiosis?

Pneumoconiosis can develop when airborne dusts, particularly mineral dusts, are inhaled at work. The dust particles remain in the lung where they can cause inflammation or fibrosis (scarring). The effects of damage from inhaled mineral dusts may not show up for many years, so patients may not develop symptoms until long after they are no longer exposed to these dusts. The most common causes of pneumoconiosis are inhalation of asbestos, silica (sand or rock dust) or coal dust. Only some workers exposed to these dusts will develop pneumoconiosis. Preventing inhalation of harmful dusts make pneumoconiosis a preventable disease.

How Pneumoconiosis Affects Your Body

When mineral dusts are inhaled, dust particles can land (deposit) in the airways (bronchial tubes) or all the way in the alveoli (air sacs) that are deep in the lungs. How far into the lungs the dust particles can get depends on the size and shape of the particles. The smaller the particles the deeper in the lung they get. After the dust particles land and settle in the lung, the lung tissue may try to get rid of the dust particles or try to surround them to prevent them from causing damage. Cells from your immune system travel to these affected areas of lung, and inflammation develops as it tries to fight the dust particle. In some cases, the inflammation is severe enough to cause scar tissue to form. The formation of scar tissue in the lung is called fibrosis. If the inflammation or fibrosis is severe enough or involves a large enough area of lung tissue, breathing will be affected. Dry cough and shortness of breath are common symptoms of fibrosis.

How Serious Is Pneumoconiosis?

The severity of pneumoconiosis varies widely depending on the type of dust, how much of the lungs are affected and how intense the dust exposure was. Pneumoconiosis sometimes causes no symptoms and is diagnosed during workplace surveillance programs that test workers to find early signs of pneumoconiosis using chest X-rays and/or spirometry (a breathing test to check how well air goes in and out of lungs). In rare cases, pneumoconiosis can be very severe and cause death.

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

    Page Last Updated: March 13, 2018

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