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Silicosis Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Basil Varkey, MD, FCCP; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
Updated: Dec 16, 2015


In obtaining a detailed occupational history, the physician should note chronologically the periods of exposure, the type of work exposure, any respiratory protective devices used, and whether other people working in the same environment have any similar symptoms or disease.

The clinical picture of silicosis is variable; acute and chronic forms have been recognized. Acute silicosis follows a relatively brief exposure to silica dust. The more common chronic forms manifest after several years of exposure and may be asymptomatic (recognized by chest radiographic findings) or symptomatic, with indolent symptoms or progressive symptoms.

Acute silicosis follows a large exposure to dust, often in unregulated environments. Symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, and pleuritic pain may develop in days to several weeks, followed by weight loss and fatigue in months to years.

Chronic silicosis can be either simple silicosis or complicated silicosis (also called progressive massive fibrosis), a distinction based on the chest radiographic appearance (see Imaging Studies). Symptoms often manifest only 1-3 decades after initial exposure. Those who develop symptoms within 10 years after initial exposure have an accelerated form of silicosis and are more likely to develop progressive massive fibrosis (PMF).

Patients with simple silicosis may be asymptomatic or may present with exertional dyspnea and cough with sputum production. Differentiating these symptoms from chronic bronchitis and emphysema in a smoker may be difficult. In PMF, dyspnea and productive cough often are accompanied by constitutional symptoms of malaise and weight loss.



Physical findings vary with the type and extent of the disease.

Physical findings are often unremarkable in simple silicosis. Rhonchi and or rales may be present in some patients. Tachypnea, expiratory prolongation, rhonchi, wheezing, and rales may be present in complicated silicosis. Digital clubbing is uncommon. Cyanosis may be noted in advanced cases of PMF.

In advanced cases with cor pulmonale, characteristic signs may be present, including prominent jugular pulse, a left parasternal heave, loud pulmonary valve closure sound (P2), tender hepatomegaly, and pedal edema.



Silicosis is a fibronodular lung disease caused by inhalation of dust containing crystalline silica (alpha-quartz or silicon dioxide), which is distributed widely, or its polymorphs (tridymite or cristobalite), which are distributed less widely. The polymorphs of silica naturally present in lava can also be produced if amorphous silica is subjected to very high temperatures, and this has high toxicity to the lungs.

Because of the wide presence of crystalline silica in nature in an undisturbed form, as in rocks and the earth's crust, people in occupations that disturb the natural state or those involved in collecting, refining, or working with the material are at risk of developing silicosis. These occupations include the following:

  • Mining or tunneling
  • Quarrying [9]
  • Drilling
  • Crushing stone
  • Chipping
  • Grinding
  • Sandblasting [10]
  • Grinding or polishing in pottery or stone work [11]
  • Foundry work
  • Cement manufacturing
  • Glass manufacturing
  • Masonry
  • Blast furnaces
  • Coal mining
  • Construction [12]
  • Cutting or manufacturing heat-resistant bricks
  • Dental laboratory technicians (a few cases have been reported) [13]
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Basil Varkey, MD, FCCP Professor Emeritus, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care, Medical College of Wisconsin; Consulting Pulmonologist, Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital

Basil Varkey, MD, FCCP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Anita B Varkey, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, Loyola University Medical Center; Associate Program Director, Internal Medicine Residency; Medical Director, General Internal Medicine Clinic, Loyola Outpatient Center

Anita B Varkey, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, Society of General Internal Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Chief Editor

Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP Geri and Richard Brawerman Chair in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Professor and Executive Vice Chairman, Department of Medicine, Medical Director, Women's Guild Lung Institute, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians, American Federation for Medical Research, American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Gregory Tino, MD Director of Pulmonary Outpatient Practices, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and Hospital

Gregory Tino, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians, American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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