Silicosis Symptoms and Diagnosis

What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?

Symptoms of silicosis usually appear after many years of exposure. In early stages, symptoms are mild and include cough, sputum and progressive shortness of breath. As the scarring continues to worsen, the first real signs of a problem may be an abnormal chest X-ray and a slowly developing cough.

Once the lung scarring has become more severe, there are a variety of symptoms that may appear. These commonly include bronchitis-like symptoms such as persistent cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. People also suffer from weakness, fatigue, fever, night sweats, leg swelling and bluish discoloration of the lips.

The longer silicosis goes without treatment, the more likely it is to develop a complication. Because the disease affects the immune system, silicosis patients are vulnerable to developing tuberculosis, lung cancer, COPD and kidney disease.

When to See Your Doctor

Any person who works in industries with exposure to silica dust should get regular health checkups and be monitored for signs and symptoms of lung disease, even if they are not experiencing any symptoms.

How Silicosis Is Diagnosed

There is no specific test for silicosis, so it may take multiple doctor’s visits and tests to diagnose.

During the visit, your doctor will ask about your breathing, both at rest and during exercise. Your doctor will also ask about your job history in detail to determine the likelihood of silica exposure. It may be a good idea to prepare the following information in advance:

  • Your symptoms and the time they started
  • Treatments given before for the symptoms and how they helped
  • The work you have done over your entire career; the length of time you spent in each job; the nature of the work you performed.
  • The products you were in contact with at work and whether or not you wore protective equipment
  • Smoking history
  • Any old medical records, including chest X-rays or CT scans

After a physical exam where your doctor listens to your lungs, there several tests that they may suggest to determine whether you may have silicosis. These include:

  • Imaging tests: A chest X-ray or CT scan can give your doctor a better picture of the lungs so they can assess how much damage has been done and whether or not silica dust is the likely cause.
  • Lung function tests: These tests measure your lungs’ ability to breathe properly and to get oxygen into the blood. These measurements are made by two separate tests: spirometry and diffusion capacity. They are also used to determine how much damage has been done to your lungs.
  • Sputum test: Collecting coughed up mucus for evaluation
  • Bronchoscopy: Your doctor will pass a bronchoscope (small flexible tube with a video camera attached at its end) either through your nose or mouth and into your windpipe and lung. This tool can be used to collect tissue samples from your lung for further testing.
  • Surgical lung biopsy: Performed by a cardiothoracic surgeon under general anesthesia, this is another way to get a sample of lung tissue for further testing.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: March 9, 2020

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