Occupational Lung Diseases
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Occupational Lung Diseases

What are work-related lung diseases?

Work-related lung diseases are lung problems that are made worse in certain work environments. They are caused by long-term exposure to certain irritants that are breathed into the lungs. These lung diseases may have lasting effects, even after the exposure ends.  

Particles in the air from many sources cause these lung problems. These sources include factories, smokestacks, exhaust, fires, mining, construction, and agriculture. The smaller the particles are, the more damage they can do to the lungs. Smaller particles are easily inhaled deep into the lungs. There, they are absorbed into the body instead of being coughed out:

  • Asbestosis. This condition is caused when a person breathes in tiny asbestos fibers. Over time, this leads to lung scarring and stiff lung tissue. It’s often linked with construction work.

  • Coal worker's pneumoconiosis or black lung disease. This is caused by inhaling coal dust. It causes lung inflammation and scarring. This can cause long-lasting (permanent) lung damage and shortness of breath.

  • Silicosis. This condition is caused by breathing in airborne crystalline silica. This is a dust found in the air of mines, foundries, and blasting operations. It is also found in the air of stone, clay, and glass manufacturing facilities. It causes lung scarring. It can also increase the risk for other lung diseases.

  • Byssinosis. This is caused by breathing in dust from hemp, flax, and cotton processing. It is also known as Brown Lung Disease. The condition is ongoing (chronic). It causes chest tightness and shortness of breath. It affects textile workers, especially those who work with unprocessed cotton.

  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis. This is an allergic lung disease. It is caused by a lung inflammation that happens from breathing in many different substances. These include fungus spores, bacteria, animal or plant protein, or certain chemicals. They can come from moldy hay, bird droppings, and other organic dusts. The disease causes inflamed air sacs in the lungs. It leads to fibrous scar tissue in the lungs and trouble breathing. There are different forms of this disease depending on the job. They include cork worker's lung, farmer's lung, and mushroom worker's lung.

  • Work-related asthma. This is caused by breathing in dusts, gases, fumes, and vapors. It causes asthma symptoms such as a chronic cough and wheezing. This condition can be reversed if found early. You are at higher risk for getting this illness if you work in certain environments. These include manufacturing and processing operations, farming, animal care, food processing, cotton and textile industries, and refining operations.

What causes work-related lung diseases?

Certain types of jobs put you at greater risk for this than others. For instance, working in a car garage or textile factory can expose you to unsafe chemicals, dusts, and fibers.

Most work-related lung diseases are caused by repeated, long-term exposure. But even a severe, single exposure to an unsafe agent can damage the lungs.

Smoking can make this condition worse.

What are the symptoms of work-related lung diseases?

Each person's symptoms may vary. Common symptoms of lung diseases include:

  • Coughing

  • Shortness of breath, which often gets worse with activity

  • Chest pain

  • Chest tightness

  • Abnormal breathing patterns

The symptoms of work-related lung diseases may look like other health conditions or problems. Always talk with a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are work-related lung diseases diagnosed?

These lung diseases, like other lung diseases, often need a chest X-ray for diagnosis. Tests that may be needed to figure out the type and severity of the lung disease include:

Chest X-ray

A test that takes pictures of internal tissues, bones, and organs.

Pulmonary function tests

These tests help measure the lungs' ability to move air into and out of the lungs. The tests are often done with special machines that you breathe into.

Bronchoscopy

This test uses a flexible tube called a bronchoscope to view the main airways of the lungs (the bronchi). Bronchoscopy helps to diagnose lung problems, look for blockages, take out tissue or fluid samples, or remove a foreign body. Bronchoscopy may include a biopsy or bronchoalveolar lavage.

  • Biopsy. This test takes out a small piece of tissue, some cells, or fluid from the lung. This is then checked under a microscope.

  • Bronchoalveolar lavage. This test removes cells from the lower respiratory tract. This is done to help find inflammation and rule out certain causes.

Blood gas

This test measures the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood. Other blood tests may be used to look for possible infections and other problems.

CT scan

This is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows details of the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than regular X-rays. They can be used to diagnose lung diseases, watch disease progression, and evaluate response to treatment.

How are work-related lung diseases treated?

There is no cure for most work-related lung diseases. Treatments are aimed at:

  • Preventing further exposure

  • Preventing more lung scarring

  • Managing symptoms

  • Helping you stay active and healthy

Treatment depends on the type of lung disease. There is no way to fix lung scarring that has already happened.

Can work-related lung diseases be prevented?

Work-related lung diseases are preventable. The best prevention is to stay away from the inhaled substances that cause lung problems. Other preventive measures include:

  • Don't smoke. Smoking can raise the risk for work-related lung disease.

  • Wear the correct protective devices. These devices include face masks or respirators. Use them if needed when around airborne irritants and dusts.

  • Use a spirometer. Check your lung function with spirometry as often as advised by your healthcare provider. This helps you get familiar with your lung function and watch for changes.

  • Understand the risks of lung disease at work. Use protection to reduce your risk.

An occupational health expert can assess a workplace for risks for work-related lung diseases. Employers can also protect workers by following safety and health regulations.

Key points about work-related lung diseases

  • Work-related lung diseases are lung problems that are made worse in certain work environments.

  • They are caused by long-term exposure to certain irritants that are breathed into the lungs.

  • Particles in the air from many sources cause these lung problems. These sources include factories, smokestacks, exhaust, fires, mining, construction, and agriculture.

  • Common symptoms include breathing problems such as coughing and shortness of breath.

  • There is no way to fix or regrow damaged lung tissue. The goal of treatment is to prevent further exposure, prevent worsening of the disease, manage symptoms, and help you stay active and healthy.

  • Workplace protection is key to preventing and managing these diseases.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alan J Blaivas DO
Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2018
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.