What Causes Silicosis?

Being able to breathe effortlessly and without struggling is something everyone should be grateful about. It is often something taken for granted until a person really has breathing difficulty or breathlessness. In most cases of breathing difficulty or problem with breathing, patients are often required to be treated in a health centre as it can be a dangerous condition or even be life-threatening. One of the reasons for such a condition is silicosis. Do you know what silicosis is?

Silicosis is a lung disease that is caused from being in contact with silica. This lung disease is considered as a long-term disease as symptoms only appear after many years following the exposure towards the silica. Silica is a naturally occurring substance that can be found in certain types of stone, rock and clay. Hence, silicosis is caused working with materials containing silica without proper protective equipment. Those who are at risk for silicosis include those working in stone masonry and stone cutting, mining and quarrying, sand blasting, construction and demolition, and last but not least manufacturing worktop, glass, ceramics or pottery. Apart from working with silica material, cigarette smoking will add more damages to the lungs

In general, there are few types of silicosis. Types of silicosis depend on the type of exposure and the effects exerted to the lungs. The first one is acute silicosis which develops in weeks or months following exposure to high levels of silica dust. The second one is accelerated silicosis that occurs when a large amount of silica dust is exposed for less than 10 years. The third one is chronic silicosis which is silicosis from exposure to low levels of silica for more than 10 years.  Even after the occupational exposure has ceased, silicosis may continue to develop or become more severe. Chronic silicosis is the most common form of this disease.

You may wonder how silica actually causes silicosis. Silica dust is entrapped in lung tissue when a person breathes in dust from silica-containing material. This itself will lead to inflammation. The silica dust particles also will cause scarring to the lungs. The aftermath of the inflammation and scarring of the lung will form lung nodules. Severe scarring can make breathing to be difficult due to the stiffen lungs. It is worth noting that in low-intensity or short-term exposure to silica dust may cause the nodules to remain ‘silent’ and do not affect lung function. It is that higher-intensity or more prolonged exposure which causes the nodules to be progressive into fibrosis, restrictive lung dysfunction or even large masses of fibrosis.

Symptoms of silicosis usually take many years to develop and many may not notice any problem until the person stopped working with silica dust. Symptoms may still continue to worsen even if there is no more exposure. Main symptoms are persistent cough, persistent shortness of breath and weakness or tiredness. Some may also have chest pain. People with silicosis may have difficulty to even do simple activities such as climbing stairs or walking with the tendency of staying home or bound to bed. Due to the fact that breathing issues can affect the immune system, patients are vulnerable to diseases such as tuberculosis, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or lung cancer.

Silicosis may mimicked other respiratory diseases. Hence, there is no specific test that can be done to detect silicosis. Often so, patient are required to go through multiple test and doctor’s visit before silicosis can be diagnosed. Doctors will emphasise on the history of possible exposure to silica and what kind of work that may involve silica material. Patient may be referred to specialist for further tests. Tests such as chest x-ray, CT scan and spirometry are among common test to help evaluate the lung structures and functions.

There is no cure for silicosis, unfortunately. Once damage is done, there is no way of reversing the already present damages. Treatment available aims to slow down the progression of the disease and to provide relief. It is crucial for patients to avoid further irritants such as cigarette smoke. Most cases patients are provided with supplemental oxygen and bronchodilator. Pulmonary rehabilitation is recommended to help patients breathe better. In severe cases, patients may be suggested to go for surgery to get lung transplantation.

Apart from treatment from doctors, there are things patients with silicosis can do to reduce complications and improve quality of life, that includes practising healthy eating habits, regular physical activity and preventing respiratory infections getting vaccination or getting prompt treatment when there are respiratory symptoms. Without a doubt, the best way to treat this incurable disease of silicosis is to take preventative measures such as wearing protective gear and equipment when working with silica material and for the workplace to implement controls on limiting silica exposure from being breathed in workers. Medical surveillance is important to detect silicosis at an early stage and prevent further damages to the lungs.