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Silicosis

Occupational lung disease

There are an increasing number of silicosis cases in parts of Australia, particularly related to the manufacture and installation of engineered stone bench tops, but there are many industries that are at risk of exposure to silica dust. While there is currently no cure for silicosis, there are treatment and management options that can help you to live well.

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a lung disease mainly caused by inhaling silica, a mineral commonly found in certain types of rock or soil Silica dust is created when cutting, drilling, grinding or polishing certain types of stone, rock, sand and clay. Over time, inhaling silica dust causes inflammation which leads to scarring of the lung tissue which can cause stiffening of the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

There are three types of silicosis – acute, accelerated and chronic. The level of exposure and the length of time a person is exposed will affect the type of silicosis which may develop. Initially, you may not notice any symptoms, except in acute silicosis. Over time, as the disease progresses, symptoms slowly develop.

Symptoms include shortness of breath, dry or productive (sputum) cough, wheeze. Other symptoms of silicosis may include tiredness, chest pain and weight loss. More information on the three types of silicosis can be viewed here in the Living with Silicosis fact sheet.

Shortness of breath

Dry or productive (sputum) cough

Wheeze

Diagnosis

Like many types of occupational lung disease, the symptoms of silicosis may not be noticeable until the disease has progressed. That’s why it’s particularly important to discuss your medical and occupational history with your GP, including symptoms (if relevant) and any previous or current exposure to hazardous agents. Your GP may refer you to a specialist doctor.

You are likely to undergo a series of tests, which may include:

  • Physical examination
  • Lung-function (breathing) tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • High-resolution CT scan (HRCT)
  • Arterial blood gas analysis
  • 6-minute walk test

Testing may also include a bronchoscopy, endobronchial ultrasound and a biopsy. These tests are not always needed if a diagnosis can be made through medical and occupational history and radiological imaging.

Management

Although there is currently no cure for silicosis, there are management strategies that may slow progression and help reduce symptoms. Your doctor will discuss with you the treatment and management options that are suitable for you.

Medication

Inhaled medications like relievers help to open the airways and make breathing easier. Inhaled corticosteroid medications, although this is generally to assist with other co-existing lung diseases. There are other medications currently in clinical trial phase. If you’re interested in taking part in a clinical trial, you should talk to your doctor about what trials are available and whether you’re eligible.

Oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy may be prescribed by your doctor if you have low blood oxygen levels. Read more about oxygen therapy to manage lung conditions here.
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Whole lung lavage

This procedure is currently being trialled in Australia to determine the benefits and risks as a treatment for people living with silicosis. It involves a general anaesthetic and flushing several litres of a salt-water solution through each lung with the aim of “washing out” damaging silica crystals. If shown to be effective, it will most likely have a role in the treatment of acute silicosis or early stages of silicosis.

Lung transplantation

If you have very severe silicosis, and your condition is worsening, your doctor may recommend a lung transplant. If you are a suitable candidate, your doctor will discuss the risks and benefits of the surgery.