Black Lung Disease

What Is Black Lung Disease?

Pneumoconiosis is a respiratory disease caused by breathing in dust and other forms of particulate matter that are harmful to your lungs. The particles settle in the lung’s air sacs, causing inflammation and the generation of scar tissue. The symptoms of pneumoconiosis are typically slow to develop, because of the considerable time it takes for an accumulation sufficient to create health problems. 

Pneumoconiosis is sometimes called occupational lung disease, because of the workplace origin of many of the invasive dusts. Another common name is black lung disease, due to the condition’s frequency among coal miners. In addition to coal dust, pneumoconiosis agents include cotton fibers, silicas, asbestos particles, airborne beryllium, and diacetyl. The latter is used in movie-popcorn butter, and can lead to a condition known as popcorn lung. 

What Are the Symptoms of Black Lung Disease?

There are simple and complicated versions of black lung disease. The simple versions may only be detectable by X-ray, which can pick up on scar tissue in the lungs. Complicated versions of the disease display the following symptoms:

  • Coughing
  • Phlegm production
  • Shortness of breath and respiratory aggravation

The more advanced the disease, the greater difficulty in breathing. If pneumoconiosis involves a large part of the lungs or causes a lot of scarring, oxygen may be prevented from easily reaching the blood during breathing. This results in hypoxemia (low blood oxygen levels).

What Are the Complications of Black Lung Disease?

In addition to respiratory problems, black lung disease can lead to several other medical complications. These include chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), respiratory failure, and cor pulmonale, a failure of the heart’s right side. 

How Is Black Lung Disease Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of black lung disease is usually based on three factors: the presence of symptoms, X-ray evidence of lung scarring, and a history of working around one or more of the invasive agents. Your physician may take the following steps to confirm the diagnosis:

  • Record your work history 
  • Conduct a physical exam
  • Order a chest X-ray or CT scan
  • Arrange a pulmonary function study, including blood-gas analysis
  • Perform a biopsy of a lung-tissue sample.

How Is Black Lung Disease Treated?

There is no cure for pneumoconiosis. Medical efforts focus on managing symptoms and limiting the future progress of the disease. Treatments include:

  • Avoiding dust and other airborne irritants
  • Not smoking
  • Use of oxygen
  • Taking bronchodilators to open air passages in the lungs.

Can Black Lung Disease be Prevented?

The best way of treating black lung disease is to avoid it in the first place. If your occupation brings you into contact with large volumes of dust or other airborne matter, consider taking the following steps:

  • Wearing a mask
  • Removing dust from skin and clothing
  • Washing hands and face frequently
  • Stopping tobacco use
  • Seeing your physician for regular checkups, including chest X-rays.

What Is the Prognosis for Black Lung Disease?

Black lung disease is a lifelong medical condition. However, with your physician’s assistance, you can control its symptoms and slow its progress. Adopting a healthy lifestyle – smoking cessation, weight loss, nutritious food, plenty of exercise and sleep – can have positive effects as well. 

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