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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. You are likely to come across these dusts only in the workplace. So pneumoconiosis is called a work-related lung disease.

Pneumoconiosis often take years to develop. Your lungs can't get rid of all these dust particles. They cause inflammation in your lungs. Over time this can lead to scar tissue.

Types of pneumoconiosis

The disease has different forms, depending on the type of dust you inhale. One of the most common forms is black lung disease (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 called popcorn lung. 

Pneumoconiosis can be simple or complicated.

  • Simple pneumoconiosis. This type causes a small amount of scar tissue. The tissue may be seen on an X-ray as round, thickened areas called nodules. This type of the disease is sometimes called coal worker pneumoconiosis (CWP).

  • Complicated pneumoconiosis. This type is known as progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). Fibrosis means that there is a lot of scarring 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 around your air sacs and air passages get thick and stiff from scarring. It becomes harder to breathe. 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 trouble breathing. Symptoms may include:

  • Cough with or without phlegm

  • Chest tightness

  • 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 out of 100 U.S. coal miners may over time 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 working. 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 periods to look for the disease. Your healthcare provider may use any of these to help make a diagnosis: 

  • Personal history of work exposure and physical symptoms

  • 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

  • Staying away from all dust exposure

  • Using oxygen

  • Taking medicines 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 medicines

  • Not smoking

  • Letting your healthcare provider and your employer know about any symptoms of pneumoconiosis

  • Getting regular chest X-rays and physical exams

  • Getting a yearly flu shot. The flu is a common cause of pneumonia. Because of that, getting a flu shot every year can help prevent both the flu and pneumonia.

  • Getting the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine. Pneumococcal pneumonia is caused by bacteria that is spread from person to person. It can cause minor problems, such as ear infections. But it can also develop into life-threatening illnesses of the lungs (pneumonia), the covering of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis), and the blood (bacteremia). This immunization has prevented pneumococcal pneumonia in both adults and children. But as with all vaccines, some people should not get this immunization. Ask your healthcare provider if you should have this immunization.

When to call the healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider if you have shortness of breath, a lasting cough, a cough that produces lots of phlegm, or worsening symptoms.

Living with pneumoconiosis

Pneumoconiosis is a long-term (chronic) lung disease. Learn as much as you can about your illness and work closely with your healthcare team. Include close family members in your care and educate them about the diseases. Follow these tips to better manage your health: 

  • Get a flu shot every year to help protect your lungs. Ask your healthcare provider about getting the pneumonia vaccine.

  • Stop smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.

  • Ask your provider if a pulmonary rehab 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 get help from a mental health provider if needed.

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

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
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