Silica is a common, naturally-occurring crystal. It is found in most rock beds. Silica dust forms during mining, quarrying, tunneling, and working with certain metal ores. Silica is a main part of sand, so glass workers and sand-blasters are also exposed to silica.
Three types of silicosis occur:
Simple chronic silicosis, which results from long-term exposure (more than 20 years) to low amounts of silica dust. The silica dust causes swelling in the lungs and chest lymph nodes. This disease may cause people to have trouble breathing. This is the most common form of silicosis.
Accelerated silicosis, which occurs after exposure to larger amounts of silica over a shorter period of time (5 to 15 years). Swelling in the lungs and symptoms occur faster than in simple silicosis.
Acute silicosis, which results from short-term exposure to very large amounts of silica. The lungs become very inflamed and can fill with fluid, causing severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels.
Progressive massive fibrosis can occur in either simple or accelerated silicosis, but is more common in the accelerated form. Progressive massive fibrosis causes severe lung scarring and destroys normal lung structures.
People who work in jobs where they are exposed to silica dust are at risk. These jobs include:
Road and building construction
Intense exposure to silica can cause disease within a year. But it usually takes at least 10 to 15 years of exposure before symptoms occur. Silicosis has become less common since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created regulations requiring the use of protective equipment, which limits the amount of silica dust workers inhale.
Your health care provider will take a medical history that includes many questions about your jobs (past and present), hobbies, and other activities that may have exposed you to silica. The health care provider will also do a physical exam.
Tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out similar diseases include:
There is no specific treatment for silicosis. Removing the source of silica exposure is important to prevent the disease from getting worse. Supportive treatment includes cough medicine, bronchodilators, and oxygen if needed. Antibiotics are prescribed for respiratory infections as needed.
Treatment also includes limiting exposure to irritants and quitting smoking.
Persons with silicosis are at high risk of developing tuberculosis (TB). Silica is believed to interfere with the body's immune response to the bacteria that cause TB. Skin tests to check for exposure to TB should be done regularly. Those with a positive skin test should be treated with anti-TB drugs. Any change in the appearance of the chest x-ray may be a sign of TB.
Patients with severe silicosis may need to have a lung transplant.
Joining a support group where you can meet other people with silicosis or related diseases can help you understand your disease and adapt to its treatments.
The outcome varies depending on the amount of damage to the lungs.
Call your health care provider if you are exposed to silica at work and you have symptoms of the disease.
If you work in a high-risk occupation or have a high-risk hobby, wear dust masks and do not smoke. You might also want to use other protection recommended by OSHA, such as a respirator.
Cowie RL, Murray J, Becklake MR. Pneumoconioses and other mineral dust-related diseases. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al., eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2010: chap 65.
Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.