How to Spot Symptoms of and Prevent Silicosis
Updated: May 4
Silica is another one of those things that is all around us without us really knowing it. It's got a plethora of applications and is used widely throughout many industries around the world.
It's quite likely that you've seen silica out there in nature as it normally exists, as quartz, but it's also one of Mother Nature's main ingredients for sand in many places around the world as well as being the second most abundant mineral is our planets crust.
Working with silica, or in a job that can produce silica, can be dangerous without the proper control measures in place. Any work that has you moving, drilling or tunneling through sand, bricks or rock will expose you to silica dust, which can cause some very serious health problems for us.
Which type of silicosis do you have?
Silicosis is a debilitating lung disease that is caused by crystalline silica dust being inhaled. These tiny particles then embed themselves into the inner walls of the lungs which causes the lungs to begin trying to fix the damage by creating fibrotic nodules and scarring where the silica dust is embedded.
If the levels of exposure were high then more scar tissue is developed which begins to make the lungs stiff, reducing their fuction, and making it difficult and painful to properly breathe.
There are three different 'types' of silicosis but they're very similiar with different lengths of time between exposure and the appearance of the symptoms.
Chronic Silicosis - Chronic silicosis is the most common form of silicosis and can go unnoticed for many years. Even x-rays may not spot the problem until 15 or 20 years have passed. If you've worked around silica in the past and you're suffering from breathing difficulties it's important that you report straight to a doctor who specialises in lung diseases. If you catch it early enough you can stop the progress of silicosis, but if caught too late it cannot be cured.
Accelerated Silicosis - This is exactly the same as chronic silicosis with the exception that it will appear much sooner. There are reports of accelerated silicosis showing up between 5 and 10 years after initial exposure. The symptoms are the same but will appear much faster than the chronic variety.
Acute silicosis - If you suffer from acute silicosis you'll notice that the symptoms appear almost immediately when compared to either chronic or accelerated silicosis. They can appear as quickly as weeks after the initial exposure and develop extremely fast. Acute silicosis is likely to complete disable you, causing severe coughs, weight loss, shortness of breath and even death.
What are the symptoms of silicosis?
As I said earlier, silicosis often doesn't show any symptoms for many, many years after the initial exposure so is especially dangerous. If you ever worked with silica you should probably get checked out. If you start to show symptoms, it may already be too late to stop it progressing too far.
Here are the symptoms of silicosis:
Breathing difficulties or prolonged shortness of breath,
Prolonged and severe coughing,
Dark marks appearing in the nail beds on hands and feet,
Severe weight loss and lack of appetite,
Skin turning blue.
The above symptoms will appear with any of the three types of silicosis but there are a couple more to be aware of.
Chronic and accelerated silicosis will cause the lungs to swell up expands the lymph nodes in the chest which causes severe breathing difficulties. This will happen much sooner with accelerated silicosis.
Acute silicosis cause the lungs to become inflammed which brings a fluid into the inside of the lungs which causes severely lowered levels of oxygen in the blood and severe shortness of breath.
How to prevent silicosis
I said earlier that there is no cure for silicosis and that was absolutely right. However, it is completely preventable if you follow the correct control measures.
It might sound completely daft to just say, "don't breathe it in," but that's essentially the only way to prevent any type of silicosis. If you work with silica or in a job that produces silica as a part of it's work process then you, or your employers, should have immediately conducted a risk assessment and installed the proper control measures.
These control measures will likely include respirators and fume vacuum hoods and they are there to save your life. If you are provided with the proper safety equipment you should absolutely be using it. Silicosis is very serious and can be fatal.
If you're worried that you may have been overexposed to crystalline silica dust then you should immediately (yes, right now) go to see a lung specialist.
However, if you want to ensure that there is no chance of succumbing to silicosis when you're at work you can take the new COSHH Risk Assessor Certification™, where I will teach you how to identify and assess the risks and implement the proper control measures.