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Pneumoconiosis

Pneumoconiosis is one of a group of interstitial lung diseases caused by breathing in certain kinds of dust particles that damage your lungs.

Because you are likely to encounter these dusts only in the workplace, pneumoconiosis is called an occupational lung disease.

Pneumoconiosis usually take years to develop. Because your lungs can't get rid of all these dust particles, they cause inflammation in your lungs that can eventually lead to scar tissue.

Types of pneumoconiosis

The disease appears in different forms, depending on the type of dust you inhale. One of the most common forms is black lung disease, also known as miner's lung. It’s caused by breathing in coal dust. Another is brown lung, which comes from working around dust from cotton or other fibers. Other types of dusts that can cause pneumoconiosis include silica and asbestos. Diacetyl, the compound used to give movie popcorn its buttery flavor, also can lead to the disease. This is known as popcorn lung. 

Pneumoconiosis can be simple or complicated. Simple pneumoconiosis causes a small amount of scar tissue. The tissue may appear on an X-ray as round, thickened areas called nodules. This type of the disease is sometimes called coal worker pneumoconiosis, or CWP. Complicated pneumoconiosis is known as progressive massive fibrosis, or PMF. Fibrosis means that a lot of scarring is present in the lungs.

For either simple or complicated pneumoconiosis, the damage causes the loss of blood vessels and air sacs in your lungs. The tissues that surround your air sacs and air passages become thick and stiff from scarring. Breathing becomes increasingly difficult. This condition is called interstitial lung disease.

Symptoms

Symptoms of pneumoconiosis often depend on how severe the disease is. Simple CWP may have few symptoms and show up only on an X-ray. PMF may cause mild to severe difficulty breathing. Symptoms may include:

  • Cough

  • Lots of phlegm

  • Shortness of breath

Who's at risk

Being exposed to dust that can cause  pneumoconiosis, in an everyday setting, is not enough to cause the disease. But you could be at risk if you've worked around or directly with these dusts. Studies show that about 16% of American coal miners may eventually develop interstitial fibrosis from coal dust. Other dust exposures that may put you at risk include working with asbestos fibers or silica dust. Your risk may also be increased by:

  • Smoking

  • Being exposed to a high level of dust

  • Being exposed for a long time

Diagnosis

You may be diagnosed with pneumoconiosis if you have symptoms and a history of working around coal, asbestos, or silica. You may also be diagnosed by having a routine X-ray during the time you are employed. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Acts require that all underground coal miners be offered a chest X-ray after 3 years and then at 5-year intervals to look for the disease. Your doctor may use any of these to help make a diagnosis: 

  • Personal history of work exposure

  • Physical exam

  • Chest X-ray to look for lung nodules

  • CT scan of the chest

  • Pulmonary function studies

Treatment

Pneumoconiosis can’t be cured. Once the disease has been diagnosed, treatment is aimed at keeping it from getting worse and controlling your symptoms. A treatment plan may include:

  • Not smoking

  • Avoiding all dust exposure

  • Using oxygen

  • Taking medications called bronchodilators that open lung passages

Complications

The main complication is when simple pneumoconiosis progresses to PMF. These are other possible complications:

  • Progressive respiratory failure

  • Lung cancer

  • Tuberculosis

  • Heart failure caused by pressure inside the lungs

Prevention

Prevention is important because the disease can't be treated or reversed. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets standard prevention rules for workers at risk for pneumoconiosis. These are common prevention measures:

  • Wearing a mask

  • Washing areas of skin that come in contact with dust

  • Safe removal of dust from clothing

  • Washing your face and hands thoroughly before eating, drinking, or taking any medications

  • Not smoking

  • Letting your doctor and your employer know about any symptoms of pneumoconiosis

  • Getting regular chest X-rays and physical exams

When to call the doctor

Call your doctor if you have shortness of breath, a persistent cough, or a cough that produces lots of phlegm.

Living with pneumoconiosis

Pneumoconiosis is a chronic, long-term, lung disease. Learn as much as you can about your illness and work closely with your medical team. Consider these tips to better manage your health: 

  • Get a flu shot every year to help protect your lungs and ask your doctor about getting the pneumonia vaccine.

  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke.

  • Ask your doctor if a pulmonary rehabilitation program could help you.

  • Try to get regular exercise and plenty of sleep.

  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Try frequent, smaller meals if a full stomach makes it harder to breathe.

  • Struggling to breathe can make you feel anxious and stressed. Talk about your feelings and seek help from a mental health professional if necessary.

  • Consider joining a support group. The American Lung Association has Better Breathers Clubs all around the country that can help.