If you are currently or have previously been exposed to silica dust, you are at risk of developing silicosis. In most cases, people living with silicosis will not experience any symptoms in the early stage of the disease.
What is silicosis?
Silicosis is an occupational lung disease caused by breathing in small particles of silica dust. Inhaling this dust into the lungs causes inflammation, which over time, leads to scarring of the lung tissue. This causes stiffening of the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
In most cases, people living with silicosis will not experience any symptoms in the early stage of the disease. However, if the disease progresses, symptoms may slowly develop, even without further exposure to silica dust. This makes early detection of silicosis vital. There is not one single test for a silicosis diagnosis – you will typically need a range of tests to confirm a silicosis diagnosis.
What can I expect if I am being investigated for a silicosis diagnosis?
Firstly, your General Practitioner (GP) will ask for the following information:
- Medical history
- Current and former occupational history. Taking an occupational history involves your GP asking a variety of questions in detail. Generally these may include where you work, what kind of work you do, the hazardous agents you are exposed to, and the types of control measures used in your workplace to reduce your risk of silica dust exposure
- Whether you have been involved in any health monitoring programs arranged by your employer, and whether you have the results
- Whether or not you have any symptoms.
Your GP will likely listen to your lungs using a stethoscope.
To confirm a silicosis diagnosis, your GP will refer you to undergo the following tests:
- High-resolution computed tomography scan (HRCT): The most accurate imaging test to detect silicosis. This involves taking detailed images of your lung tissue to assess if there is damage (scarring) in your lungs
- Chest x-ray: This involves taking images of your lung tissue to assess if there is damage in your lungs. A chest x-ray is less likely to detect early silicosis and may not be required if you have a HRCT.
Lung function testing
- Spirometry: Measures airflow and the amount of air your lungs can hold
- Diffusing capacity of the lungs for carbon monoxide (DLCO): Measures how easily oxygen enters the bloodstream.
In the early stages, silicosis can be difficult to diagnose. To confirm or rule out a silicosis diagnosis, your GP will most probably refer you to a respiratory physician.
A respiratory physician may arrange further investigations, such as blood tests. If the silicosis diagnosis is not certain, occasionally a bronchoscopy will be conducted. A bronchoscopy is a camera test to look for infection or inflammation in the lungs.
Who will be involved in diagnosing silicosis?
When being investigated for silicosis, you will likely be seen by several health professionals, particularly a respiratory physician, in addition to your GP. Each has a unique role in your diagnosis and for different circumstances.
General Practitioner (GP)
A GP is a doctor who is qualified in general medical practice and is your primary doctor who will coordinate your care. They will perform the initial assessments, such as taking your medical and occupational history and conducting a physical exam. They may suggest and refer you for a HRCT. A GP will not confirm a diagnosis of silicosis. If your GP suspects silicosis, they will refer you to a respiratory physician.
A respiratory physician specialises in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of respiratory conditions like silicosis. You will need a referral from your GP or health monitoring program. Respiratory physicians may perform additional tests, outlined above. Some respiratory physicians have expertise in occupational health. A respiratory physician can confirm a diagnosis of silicosis.
In some instances, your treating healthcare team will engage with an occupational physician. An occupational physician specialises in work-related health conditions and provides specialist advice to employers i.e. strategies for managing occupational and environmental risks like silica dust exposure. They may be involved in evaluating your fitness for a particular job.
Next steps following a silicosis diagnosis
If you are diagnosed with silicosis, there are several Silicosis and Occupational lung disease resources available. Your treating healthcare team will work with you to develop a plan to support you to manage your silicosis.
Read more in our fact sheet Living with silicosis. To speak to Lung Foundation Australia’s dedicated Silicosis Support Nurse, Silicosis Social Worker or connect with a Silicosis Peer Support Group contact the Information and Support Centre on free call 1800 654 301 (option 3) or complete the form below.
If your assessment has not resulted in a diagnosis of silicosis but you have been exposed to silica dust, your respiratory physician or occupational physician will discuss a plan for ongoing health monitoring.