What Is Silicosis?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on August 30, 2022
3 min read

Silicosis is a lung disease. It usually happens in jobs where you breathe in dust that contains silica. That’s a tiny crystal found in sand, rock, or mineral ores like quartz.

Over time, silica can build up in your lungs and breathing passages. This leads to scarring that makes it hard to breathe.

There are three types:

  • Acute: Symptoms happen a few weeks up to 2 years after exposure to a large amount of silica.
  • Chronic: Problems may not show up until decades after you’re exposed to low or moderate amounts of silica. It’s the most common type of silicosis. Symptoms may be mild at first and slowly worsen.
  • Accelerated: You’ll notice signs about 5 to 10 years after heavy exposure to silica. They’ll worsen quickly.

Most people get silicosis because they’re exposed to silica dust at work. Jobs in these fields may put you at higher risk:

  • Mining
  • Steel industry
  • Construction
  • Plaster or drywall installation
  • Glass manufacturing
  • Road repair
  • Sandblasting
  • Masonry
  • Roofing
  • Farming

If your job exposes you, you might have early symptoms like:

Later symptoms include:

Silicosis is your body’s reaction to silica dust buildup in your lungs.

When you breathe in silica, the tiny particles of dust settle deeply into your breathing passages. Scar patches form on your lung tissue. Scarring stiffens and damages your lungs, and this makes it hard to breathe.

Other tests to help diagnose silicosis include:

  • Chest X-ray or CT scan: This test checks your lungs for scars.
  • Bronchoscopy: The doctor will run a long, thin tube with a tiny camera on the end into your lungs to check for damage.
  • Biopsy: In a lung tissue biopsy, the doctor will guide a needle through your chest and into your lungs to take a sample of a nodule. They’ll check it under a microscope for signs of silicosis.
  • Sputum test: This will help evaluate other lung diseases, like tuberculosis (TB).

If you have chronic silicosis, you’re at higher risk for TB, flu, and pneumonia. Get regular TB tests at your doctor’s office, plus an annual flu shot and pneumonia vaccine.

Silicosis also raises your odds of getting these serious lung diseases:

There’s no cure for silicosis right now. Treatments can help you manage your symptoms.

One major lifestyle change can help you manage this disease:

  • Stop smoking: It’s dangerous if you have silicosis. It makes your lung damage even worse. Get help to quit. Avoid secondhand smoke and areas with a lot of dust, air pollution, and allergens if you can.

The simplest steps include:

  • Limit the time you’re exposed to silica.
  • Wear a mask or other protective clothing while you work around it. Your employer is required to provide proper safety equipment.

Other ways to prevent silicosis on the job:

  • Use blasting cabinets or proper ventilation.
  • Use wet methods to cut, chip, or grind materials.
  • Swap blasting material that contains silica for other types.
  • Use respirators that protect you from inhaling silica.
  • Don't eat or drink near silica dust.
  • Wash your hands and face before you eat.
  • Shower and change clothes after work.