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(StatePoint) Silicosis, a type of lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, mainly affects workers in jobs such as construction and mining. Over time, exposure to silica particles causes scarring in the lungs, which can harm your ability to breathe.

In an effort to help people prevent, diagnose and treat silicosis, the American Lung Association is sharing these five important facts about the disease:

1. Silicosis is the world’s oldest known occupational disease.

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Approximately 2.3 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica in the workplace, including 2 million in construction and other industries, like stone countertop fabrication, foundry work, masonry, mining, general construction and other jobs that involve drilling or breaking materials that contain silica, the most abundant mineral in the Earth’s crust.

2. Silicosis normally takes 10–30 years after first exposure to develop.

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Microscopic silica particles can penetrate deep into a person’s lungs and greatly affect their ability to breathe. Symptoms typically worsen over time, especially if exposure to silica dust is ongoing. Over time, the particles can cause lung inflammation that leads to the formation of lung nodules and scarring called pulmonary fibrosis. Individuals with silicosis have a higher risk of developing other health issues like tuberculosis, bronchitis and lung cancer.

3. There are three types of silicosis.

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Acute silicosis causes cough, weight loss and fatigue within a few weeks or years of exposure to inhaled silica. Chronic silicosis, which is the most common form of silicosis and appears 10 to 30 years after exposure, can affect upper lungs and sometimes cause extensive scarring. Lastly, accelerated silicosis occurs within 10 years of high-level exposure.

4. There is no cure for silicosis, making prevention essential.

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While there is no cure for silicosis, the good news is that this lung disease is completely preventable. Construction sites can mitigate dust by using tools with integrated vacuum systems or by wetting down materials, using sweeping powder, and using dust and water controls appropriately. In addition, properly-fitted respirators can protect lung health while on the job.

5. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment will make life with silicosis easier.

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The lung damage caused by silicosis is permanent, however it is imperative to treat the disease to slow down progression and relieve symptoms. Once silicosis has developed, your doctor will assess the degree of lung damage with tests. Some people may benefit from inhalers or supplemental oxygen to treat symptoms. Using the proper medications and seeing an experienced specialist are important to managing the disease, as well as quitting smoking, getting adequate exercise, managing your weight and monitoring for complications.

For resources and to learn more, visit www.lung.org.

Photo 1 Credit: (c) kozmoat98 / Getty Images

Photo 2 Credit: (c) Drazen Zigic / Getty Images

Photo 3 Credit: (c) Chinnapong / Getty Images

Photo 4 Credit: (c) DjelicS / Getty Images

Photo 5 Credit: (c) adamkaz / Getty Images

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