What Is Pneumoconiosis?

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on January 31, 2022
4 min read

Pneumoconiosis is a lung disease that affects miners, builders, and other workers who breathe in certain kinds of dust on the job.

Over time, the dust gathers in your lungs, and you may find it hard to get enough air.

You may hear other people call pneumoconiosis "black lung disease" or "popcorn lung." There's no cure, but treatments can make it easier for you to breathe and go about your regular activities.

Pneumoconiosis doesn't show up overnight. It happens after you've spent years in a place where you breathe in fine mineral or chemical dust, such as silica, coal dust, or asbestos. When the specks of dust build up in your lungs, the immune system -- your body's defense against germs -- swings into action. It sees the dust particles as invaders and tries to destroy them.

Your lung tissue often gets inflamed during this process. As a result, scar tissue may form in your lungs, just as it would after an injury. Since scar tissue is less stretchy than regular lung tissue, it may become harder for you to take a full, deep breath.

Many people with pneumoconiosis get problems like:

  • A long-term cough
  • Coughing up large amounts of mucus
  • Feeling short of breath

You may get other symptoms, depending on what kind of pneumoconiosis you have. If you breathed in a lot of asbestos dust, for instance, fluid may build up in the pleural space, a narrow area between the lungs and the chest wall.

Your doctor may use X-rays or CT scans to figure out if you have pneumoconiosis. If you have the disease, images from these tests will show scar tissue in your lungs or dense lumps of tissue called nodules.

Your doctor may order other tests to better understand your condition. You may get a pulmonary function test to see how well air enters and leaves your lungs. An oxygen saturation test shows how much of the oxygen you breathe makes it to your bloodstream.

In some cases, your doctor may look at your airways with a tiny camera or take a small sample of lung tissue (biopsy) to confirm your diagnosis.

There isn't any treatment that can remove the specks of mineral dust in your lungs. Instead, most treatments try to keep your lungs working.

You may need to stop doing the work that led to your pneumoconiosis. If you're a smoker, your doctor will recommend you quit to improve your lung health.

Your doctor may prescribe an inhaled medication such as a bronchodilator or corticosteroid. Bronchodilators open up your airways if you have trouble breathing, while corticosteroids can curb airway inflammation.

If your tests show low levels of oxygen in your blood, your doctor may suggest you get "supplemental oxygen therapy." In this treatment, you breathe in extra oxygen through a mask or prongs in your nose. The oxygen you get this way is stored in a tank or some other kind of device. Some people use this treatment throughout the day, while others may need it only at night.

Pneumoconiosis is a "chronic" lung disease, which means you'll need to manage the symptoms over the long term. With the right treatment and regular doctor visits, you can keep symptoms under control and guard against future lung damage.

Your doctor will monitor you for other conditions you may get because you have pneumoconiosis. These possible complications include lung cancer or progressive massive fibrosis, a severe form of lung scarring that can be life threatening.

When you're trying to manage a long-term disease like pneumoconiosis, it helps to reach out to family and friends for emotional support. You can also join a support group, where you can talk to people who know what you're going through. Ask your doctor about where to find one, or check the website of the American Lung Association. And if pneumoconiosis is making you feel stressed or anxious, ask your doctor to recommend a mental health professional.

The best way to prevent pneumoconiosis is to wear a respirator mask at work, which will help keep mineral dust out of your lungs. If you've been in a place with fine dust, wash your face and hands before you drink or eat. This way, you won't accidentally breathe in dust that gets stuck to you.

If your job puts you at risk of pneumoconiosis, you should get regular physical exams and chest X-rays to make sure your lungs stay in good health.