Medical Information

How Much Exposure Does it Take?

Silicosis can develop within a few weeks to even decades after exposure and depends on several factors, such as the amount, how often and for how long a worker is exposed to silica containing dust. Some people are more susceptible than others to developing disease even though they may have had similar patterns of workplace exposure.

What Are The Symptoms of Silicosis?

In the early stages of silicosis, there will usually be no symptoms and the condition may only be detected by chest x-ray or CT scan. Symptoms typically develop and worsens gradually as scarring in the lungs progresses. Cough is an early symptom and develops over time.

In advanced cases of silicosis, people will have phlegm production and cough. Chronic bronchitis like symptoms may occur and the lungs will have additional sounds called wheezes and crackles. As extensive scarring progresses over time, you may see signs of chronic lung disease, such as leg swelling, increased breathing rate, and bluish discoloration of the lips.

When to See Your Doctor

Any person who works in industries with exposure to inhaled silica should get regular health check-ups and be monitored for signs and symptoms of lung disease. In addition, if you have a cough, phlegm, or breathing difficulty that is not improving, you should be closely evaluated by your doctor. Some people with acute silicosis also present with fever, weight
loss and fatigue.

How it’s Diagnosed

Having worked in an at-risk industry is the best clue for your doctor to the diagnosis of silicosis. The symptoms of silicosis are similar to those of other lung diseases, which can often make it difficult to detect. Silicosis is detected by a chest X-ray and testing lung function (spirometry test). CT scans and/or lung biopsies are sometimes required to assist diagnosis. The results of these tests are then interpreted by experienced radiologists and respiratory specialists.

How Silicosis is Treated

When an individual has been diagnosed with silicosis they will not be able to work in an environment that further exposes them to dust particles and potentially compromises their health.

Treatment of silicosis requires careful management by your health care team. This may include your GP, respiratory physician, a physio/exercise physiologist, occupational therapist, psychologist and other medical and allied health care professionals. The delivery of these services will primarily centre on managing symptoms. Having a healthy lifestyle and
exercising regularly is an important component of managing this medical condition.

In cases of severe silicosis, a lung transplant may need to be considered.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Silicosis

Making notes before your visit, as well as taking along a trusted family member or friend, can help you through the first appointment with your doctor. You’ll want to provide a complete exposure history and work together on planning for a team approach to manage silicosis.

• What tests do I need to confirm my diagnosis?
• How can the disease be monitored?
• What choices do I have to assist with my symptoms?
• What is the prognosis for my situation?
• Are there any advances in therapy?
• Are there any counselling resources available?
• Where can I look for information on methods to obtain compensation?
• What options are available to help me quit smoking?
• What vaccines do I need?
• Do I have progressive massive fibrosis?
• Do I need a lung transplant?

Other Diseases Resulting from Silicosis

• Chronic bronchitis: persisting infection and inflammation of the larger airways of the lungs – the Bronchi;
• Emphysema: destruction of the lung tissue and loss of surface area for the exchange of gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide;
• Lung cancer: occurs with heavy exposure to silica, with smokers having a higher risk;
• Kidney damage;
• Scleroderma: a disease of the connective tissue of the body resulting in the formation of scar tissue in the skin, joints and other organs of the body;
• Rheumatoid arthritis: an autoimmune disease that causes pain and swelling of the joints, particularly in the hands and feet.
• Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): obstructive lung disease characterized by long-term breathing problems and poor airflow. The main symptoms include shortness of breath and cough with sputum production.