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Diagnosing and Treating Silicosis

If you work or have worked in an occupation with exposure to inhaled silica and have a cough, phlegm, or breathing difficulty, you should be evaluated for silicosis.

What to Expect

It may take multiple doctor’s visits and tests to diagnose silicosis. Once diagnosed, expect long-term monitoring and follow-up. You will also need to take measures to avoid further exposure.

How It's Diagnosed

Having worked in an at-risk industry is the best clue for your doctor, and a chest X-ray is crucial to diagnose the type of silicosis. Your visit will include a physical examination - your health-care provider will listen to your lungs - and a chest X-ray. Your chest X-ray may be normal, or you may have a lot of scarring in the lungs. There may be a series of tests, such as:

  • Breathing tests
  • High resolution CT scan of the chest
  • A bronchoscopy to evaluate the inside of the lungs
  • A biopsy of the lungs

Additional tests, such as mucus (sputum) evaluation, may be needed to assess for associated diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB).

How Silicosis Is Treated

There is no cure for silicosis. Prevention is still the best way to avoid the disease. Once silicosis has developed, your doctor will assess the degree of lung damage with tests. Some people may need urgent treatment with oxygen and support for breathing. Others may need medicines to decrease sputum production, such as inhaled steroids. Some may need inhaled bronchodilators, which relax the air tubes.

Once the disease advances, the management is similar to many other chronic lung diseases and needs a multidisciplinary or team approach. To keep the disease from getting worse, it is important to stay away from any additional sources of silica and other lung irritants, such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, allergens and smoke. You may consider counseling to discuss changing occupations.

Acute silicosis may need to be treated with steroids, and a lung transplant may need to be considered.

    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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