Silicosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust. Silica is a common mineral found naturally in sand and rock, such as granite and sandstone. Silica exposure is common in mines and quarries and in a number of other occupations such as construction (especially sandblasting), foundry-work, ceramics and glass-making. Silica scars lung and affects its ability to function normally.

Inhalation of crystalline silica particles may also lead to other conditions, particularly tuberculosis. There is also a link between silicosis and lung cancer.

There are different types of silicosis depending on how quickly symptoms develop after exposure. The most common form is chronic silicosis, in which symptoms occur after 10 years or more of overexposure. The most common symptoms are chronic dry cough and shortness of breath with physical activity.

In making a diagnosis of silicosis, your doctor will start by taking a detailed medical and occupational history and conducting a thorough medical examination.

The following tests may also be conducted to make a definite diagnosis:

  • Chest X-ray — A chest X-ray may be taken to look for any abnormalities in your lungs. In chronic silicosis, small round opaque areas appear on the lungs.
  • Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT) — This test involves a series of breathing maneuvers that measure the airflow and volume of air in your lungs, which allows your doctor to objectively assess the function of your lungs.
  • Bronchoscopy — This test involves passing a flexible fiberoptic scope, about the diameter of a pencil, into the lungs to obtain fluid and sometimes tissue samples to aid in diagnosis.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for silicosis. However, there is a variety of treatments available to help manage symptoms and prevent complications associated with the disease.

In severe cases, lung transplant may be an option for some patients with silicosis.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.