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Silicosis - Causes, Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

Published on Nov 29, 2022 and last reviewed on Feb 02, 2023   -  5 min read


Silicosis refers to a pulmonary disease caused by silica dust particles. Read further to know more about this condition.


Silicosis is a chronic (long-term) lung disease caused by breathing in tiny particles of silicon dioxide in the form of free crystalline silica (quartz) or rarely by inhaling silicates, minerals containing silicon dioxide bound with other elements, such as talc. Silica is a naturally occurring substance in certain rocks, stones, clay, and sand. Working with silica-containing materials over many years can cause easy inhalation of very fine silica dust particles. Once silica dust enters the lungs, it causes lung inflammation (swelling) and scarring (fibrosis), leading to loss of lung function.

Who Is at Higher Risk of Silicosis?

The workers who blast rock and sand in mines, quarries, and cutting stones, sandblasters, glassmakers, ceramic workers, foundry workers, gemstone workers, and potters (who use silica-containing rocks and sand abrasives) are at higher risk of this condition. Coal miners are also at increased risk of both silicosis and coal worker pneumoconiosis.

What Are the Risk Factors Involved?

Various risk factors that are involved in the development of silicosis include:

  • Based on the form of silicon (exposure to the crystalline form of silica has an increased risk than the bound form).

  • Depending on the duration and intensity of exposure.

  • Depends on the surface characteristics.

  • Speed of inhalation after the dust is fractured and converted into airborne.

What Are the Complications of Silicosis?

Several complications occur as a result of this condition. These include:

  • Chronic kidney disease.

  • Nocardiosis (a bacterial disease that affects the brain, lungs, and skin).

  • Lung cancer.

  • Tuberculosis.

  • Systemic sclerosis (refers to a rare condition characterized by the hardening of the connective tissues).

  • Rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Other complications that possibly occur include- spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung), airway obstruction, and broncholithiasis (calcifications in the windpipe branches).

  • Emphysema (a lung disease that damages the air sacs and causes shortness of breath) is also common in areas of progressive massive fibrosis.

  • People not affected by silicosis but exposed to silica have three times the risk of developing tuberculosis compared to the general population.

What Are the Different Types of Silicosis?

There are three types of silicosis classified based on the exposure and manifestation of symptoms:

  • Acute Silicosis- It is also referred to as silicoproteinosis. The cause of acute silicosis includes exposure to intense silica dust within a short span of time. It shows positive stains of periodic acid -Schiff (PAS) due to the infiltration of mononuclear cells in alveolar septa and spaces filled with a proteinaceous material which can also be seen in pulmonary alveolar proteinosis. The occupational history associated with acute exposure to silica particles differentiates silicoproteinosis from pulmonary alveolar proteinosis.

  • Chronic Silicosis- It is the most common disorder, which only manifests or develops after exposure over decades.

  • Conglomerate Silicosis- It is also referred to as complicated silicosis or progressive massive fibrosis. It is the progressed or advanced form of chronic or acute silicosis. It is characterized by masses of fibrosis spread widely, especially in the upper lung zones.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Silicosis?

  • Acute Silicosis- Patients with acute silicosis present with rapid progression of dyspnea, weight loss, bilateral crackles, and fatigue. Respiratory failure occurs within two years.

  • Chronic Silicosis- Chronic silicosis mostly presents with no symptoms, usually asymptomatic, but many patients show dyspnea during exertion, which progresses to dyspnea even at rest. Other manifestations are productive cough and bronchitis. Breath sounds decrease as the disorder progresses, pulmonary hypertension, pulmonary consolidation, respiratory failure, and right ventricular failure are other conditions associated with the progression of the disease.

  • Conglomerate Silicosis- This type of silicosis is associated with severe and long-term respiratory complications.

What Are the Diagnostic Approaches for Silicosis?

A detailed occupational history with short-term or long-term exposure to silica and physical examination assist in diagnosing this condition.

Various other tests are performed to rule out the diagnosis -

Imaging Test:

1. Chest X-Ray-

  • This test can reveal the presence of scar tissue. Small white spots appear on X-rays which are known as silica scars.

  • This test is preferable as it is more sensitive for detecting and recording the transition from simple to conglomerate silicosis. The findings from a chest X-ray can help to differentiate asbestosis from silicosis.

  • Calcified hilar and mediastinal lymph nodes resembling eggshells are the typical characteristic distinguishing feature from other pulmonary disorders.

  • A diffuse alveolar basilar opacity demonstrates fluid-filled alveoli is the diagnostic finding of acute silicosis.

  • In conglomerate silicosis, opacities more than 10 millimeters in diameter are observed.

2. Adjunctive Tests:

  • Specific Tests: Sputum culture and cytology, bronchoscopy, and positron emission tomography help distinguish silicosis from other pulmonary complications like tuberculosis or cancer. Antinuclear antibodies and elevated rheumatoid factor are noticed in a few patients, suggesting coexisting connective tissue disorder.
  • Pulmonary Function Tests: In conglomerate silicosis, this test reveals decreased lung volumes, reduced levels of diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide, and airway obstruction. In the early stages of chronic silicosis, reduced lung volume with normal functional residual capacity and residual volume are observed. In the case of conglomerate silicosis, this test reveals reduced lung volume capacity, decreased diffusion capacity for carbon monoxide, and airway obstruction.

  • Bronchoscopy: In bronchoscopy a thin, flexible tube is passed down the throat, where a camera is attached to the tube to view the lung tissue. Through this technique, tissue and fluid samples can be taken.

How Is Silicosis Treated?

The treatment of silicosis can be aimed at reducing the progression and relieving the symptoms of this disease. Avoidance of further exposure to silica particles should be avoided.

  • Oxygen therapy is recommended in the case of patients suffering from difficulty in breathing and low levels of oxygen in the blood.

  • Bronchodilator medicines are recommended to widen the airways and make breathing easier.

  • Antibiotics are prescribed in case of bacterial chest infections.

  • In advanced or severe cases, a lung transplant is the only choice of treatment. There are some health limitations to meet before this procedure is carried out.

  • In the case of acute silicosis, whole lung lavage is recommended.

  • Whole lung lavage reduces the total mineral dust load in the lungs. The use of oral Corticosteroids is also recommended in case of acute silicosis.


Silicosis is a serious lung disease that does not have a cure, as lung damage cannot be reversed. However, the symptoms can be relieved with treatment, and the patient's quality of life can be improved. The prevalence of silicosis has been reduced over time due to improvements in workplace safety measures. However, reports suggest that more than a hundred people die yearly from silicosis. The long-term outcome depends on the severity of the condition.

Frequently Asked Questions


What is the management of silicosis?

There is no specific treatment for silicosis. This treatment aims to inhibit the silicosis condition from worsening and relieve symptoms. This may include medications to help with breathing, such as bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and oxygen therapy. Surgery is essential in some critical cases to remove damaged lung tissue. In addition, limiting exposure to silica dust is essential to prevent the condition from progressing. Lung transplantation is recommended as a last resort in critical cases.


What is the life expectancy of individuals with silicosis?

The life expectancy of individuals with silicosis varies on the severity and other health issues. For example, people with a mild type (chronic silicosis) may have a normal life expectancy. In contrast, those with more severe cases (accelerated or acute silicosis) face the prospects of reduced life expectancy. In addition, factors such as lung function, overall health, and exposure to other toxins can also affect life expectancy.


Is silicosis a type of cancer?

No, silicosis is not a type of cancer. Instead, Silicosis results due to the inhalation of fine silica dust. The dust causes inflammation and scarring in the lungs, leading to difficulty breathing and other lung problems.


How much dust results in silicosis?

Silicosis results from respirable crystalline silica dust inhalation when cutting, grinding, drilling, or crushing materials containing silica. The amount of silica dust that results in silicosis varies depending on the size and duration of exposure. Fifty micrograms per cubic meter of air for nine hours of silica exposure is recommended.


Can silicosis occur from a one-time exposure to silica?

The development of silicosis depends on several factors, including the amount of silica dust inhaled, the duration of exposure, and the individual's overall health. One exposure to silica may not result in silicosis, but repeated or prolonged exposure can increase the risk of developing the disease. Therefore, it is necessary to follow precautions to limit exposure to silica dust to reduce the risk of developing silicosis.


What are the jobs that result in silicosis?

Jobs that can result in silicosis include mining, quarrying, and drilling, as well as manufacturing jobs that involve working with silica materials, such as glass, ceramics, and concrete. Construction work, such as sandblasting, and certain agricultural jobs, such as working with diatomaceous earth, can also result in silicosis. People who work in these industries and are exposed to silica dust over a long period are at a higher risk of developing silicosis.


How to get rid of silica particles in the lungs?

If exposure has already occurred, quitting smoking and avoiding further exposure can help reduce the risk of lung damage. In some cases, medications such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids may be prescribed to help manage symptoms. If lung damage is severe, a lung transplant may be recommended. It is essential to consult a physician if they suspect they have been exposed to silica and are experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, or chest pain.


Can silicosis be reversed?

It is a progressive disease, which means that it typically gets worse over time. There is no cure for silicosis, and the damage caused to the lungs by the disease is permanent. Treatment for silicosis typically focuses on managing symptoms and slowing the progression of the disease. This may include medications to help with breathing, oxygen therapy, and lung rehabilitation. In critical cases, lung transplantation may be recommended for advanced cases.


Will exercise help to reduce silicosis?

While exercise is generally beneficial for overall health, it may not directly treat or cure silicosis. In addition, exercise in a contaminated environment may worsen the condition. Therefore, if you have silicosis, it is important to avoid exposure to silica dust and to follow the treatment plan recommended by your doctor, which may include medications and oxygen therapy.


Will silicosis lead to death?

Yes, silicosis can cause death. Silicosis results from large amounts of crystalline silica dust inhalation, which damage the lungs and lead to difficulty breathing, lung infections, and other complications. In severe cases, silicosis can be fatal.


Is there any permanent cure for silicosis?

There is no known cure for silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust. Treatment primarily focuses on managing symptoms and preventing further lung damage. This may include medications to reduce inflammation, oxygen therapy, and avoiding exposure to silica dust. In critical cases, a lung transplant may be considered as last resort.


Can silicosis occur from inhaling grinding concrete particles?

Yes, silicosis can occur from inhaling silica dust generated by grinding concrete. Silicosis results from inhaling silica dust, damaging the lungs and making breathing difficult. Therefore, taking proper precautions, such as wearing a mask and using water to control dust, is important when working with materials containing silica, such as concrete.


Will silicosis occur suddenly?

It typically occurs after long exposure to silica dust, and the symptoms may only appear several years after exposure. However, in some cases, a person may develop acute silicosis, which can occur after a shorter period of intense exposure to silica dust. This is a more severe form of the disease and can lead to rapid progression and death.


What is the best method to avoid silica exposure and silicosis?

The best method to avoid silicosis is to avoid inhaling silica dust. This can be done by using proper protective equipment, such as respirators, and implementing engineering controls, such as ventilation systems, in workplaces where silica dust is present. Additionally, employers should train workers on the hazards of silica exposure and the proper use of protective equipment.

Last reviewed at:
02 Feb 2023  -  5 min read




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