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Occupational lung disease

Being diagnosed with an occupational lung disease like pneumoconiosis can feel overwhelming and frightening. While there is currently no cure for this range of conditions, there are treatments and strategies that can help manage symptoms, slow progression, and help you to live well.

What is pneumoconiosis?

Pneumoconiosis is the general term for lung fibrosis, or lung scarring, caused by inhalation of dust. Inhaling this dust causes a reaction in the lungs, including inflammation, which can lead to scar tissue (fibrosis) or small masses of tissue (nodules) forming. Many different dusts can cause pneumoconiosis leading to different types of pneumoconiosis.

The most common types of pneumoconiosis include asbestosis, silicosis, coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (or black lung disease). Other types of pneumoconiosis and their causes include:

  • Mixed-dust pneumoconiosis – exposure to more than one hazardous dust
  • Aluminosis (or aluminium lung) – aluminium-bearing dust
  • Berylliosis (or chronic beryllium disease) – dusts or vapours containing beryllium
  • Byssinosis (or brown lung disease) – dust from vegetable fibres, such as flax, hemp or cotton
  • Diffuse dust-related fibrosis (or diffuse dust fibrosis or coal mine dust-related diffuse fibrosis) – coal mine dust
  • Hard metal pneumoconiosis (or hard metal lung disease) – dusts from hard metals such as tungsten, tungsten carbide and cobalt
  • Talcosis – talc dust
  • Welder’s lung – welding fumes (e.g.. iron dust, oxidized metals such as Aluminium, cobalt, copper, etc.)

Note: This is not an exhaustive list of all types of pneumoconiosis.


Many people with early stages of pneumoconiosis have no symptoms. Symptoms do not usually develop until many years after exposure. You may no longer be exposed to the hazardous agent by the time symptoms arise. When symptoms do present, they may range from mild to severe. The condition is usually progressive where symptoms become worse, particularly if exposure continues.

Symptoms include:


  Shortness of breath

  Chest tightness


The first step to diagnosing pneumoconiosis is discussing your medical and occupational history, including symptoms (if relevant) and any previous or current exposure to hazardous agents with your GP. Your GP may refer you to a specialist doctor after an initial consult.

In addition to discussions with your GP and/or specialist doctor, you are likely to undergo a series of tests including:

Physical examination

Lung-function (breathing) tests

Chest x-ray

High-resolution CT scan

Arterial blood gas analysis

Lung biopsy


Although there is currently no cure for pneumoconiosis, there are management strategies that may slow progression of the disease and help alleviate symptoms. Your doctor will work with you to find what is suitable for your needs.


There are some medications available that may help reduce your pneumoconiosis symptoms. Inhaled medications may be beneficial for some people and newer treatments, such as anti-fibrotic agents, are now being trialled to help slow progression of the disease. Some other medications are currently in the clinical trial phases.

Oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy may be prescribed by your doctor if you have low blood oxygen levels. This is to ensure your vital organs are receiving enough oxygen to function.

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Lung transplantation

A lung transplant may be considered in very severe cases of pneumoconiosis. If you are suitable for a lung transplant, your doctor will discuss the risks and benefits of the surgery with you.