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What is Black Lung Disease?

Black lung disease also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis is the inflammation (swelling and irritation) and fibrosis (thickening or scarring) in lung tissue caused because of inhaling dust particles in and near coal mines. The disease is long considered as a work-related illness and it’s because inhaling coal mine dust usually occurs among those who work in coal mines. Rarely it happens in the general environment. Black lung is very much prevalent in coal workers even today and without treatment, black lung might lead to serious complications like heart failure, tuberculosis, and lung cancer.

What are the Types of Black Lung Disease?

There are two types of black lung disease based on how much dust you inhaled and how long you have been working in the coal mine. Both of these factors affect your breathing.

The two types of black lung disease include:

– Simple

In this type, there will be a little scarring in the lungs that seems like small black spots on a CT scan or chest X-ray. If you have this type of black lung disease then it’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions about medications, along with avoiding further exposure to coal dust. You should also get regular check-ups and lung imaging. The earlier that simple black lung disease is detected, the better it’s and that’s why screening is so vital.

– Complicated

In this type, the scarring is severe and covers most of the lung. The scarring cannot be fixed but there are treatments available to help you feel better. Many doctors refer to this as prsogressive massive fibrosis also.

What are the Symptoms of Black Lung Disease?

The symptoms of black lung disease can develop over a period of many years. Because of this, a large number of people don’t show signs and symptoms of black lung disease until they’re nearer to retirement age.

Common symptoms of black lung include:

– Coughing

– Shortness of breath

– Breathing problem

– Tightness in the chest

– Producing black mucus

-Decreased tolerance to physical activity

In some instances, a black lung may not show obvious symptoms.

What Causes Black Lung Disease?

The main cause of black lung is inhaling coal dust over a period and people who work in coal mines are usually affected by it. Rarely it occurs in people who are not regularly exposed to coal dust.

Coal dust consists of carbon-containing particles and these particles are harmful to the lungs. In some instances, coal workers may also inhale silica-containing particles.

When someone inhales coal dust, the particles settle into the alveoli in their lungs. Alveoli are small air sacs that help the lungs inhale oxygen. If coal dust gets into your alveoli, your lung tissue tries to combat and get rid of the particles. This leads to chronic lung inflammation, which might result in scarring over time. The severity of black lung disease is based on how much dust has been inhaled and for how long period.

What are the Risk Factors of Black Lung Disease?

Working in coal mines is the main risk factor for black lung disease. You are at increased risk if you work (or worked in) coal mines along with:

– Smoking

– Is exposed to a lot of dust while working

– Working in coal mines for many years

– Worked in the mine where you got exposed to  high levels of silica or lots of rock dust

People doing the following jobs are at a higher risk of getting black lung disease

– Miner operators

– Shuttle car operators

– Surface drillers and blasters

– High wall and thin seam miners

What Are the Complications of Black Lung Disease?

The complications of black lung disease include:

– Tuberculosis

– Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

– Coronary artery disease (CAD)

– Heart failure

– Lung cancer

– Premature death

– Poor life quality

How Black Lung Disease is Diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history and your work (occupational) history if you are dealing with breathing problems. They’ll conduct a physical exam. If required, they’ll carry out medical tests to confirm your condition.

Your doctor will use various methods to find out if you have black lung disease including:

– Medical history

Because this disease is linked with certain jobs and working conditions, your doctor will get information about your job history. Questions about your symptoms will also be asked.

– Physical exam

A physical exam helps your doctor to examine your chest area and listen to your breathing which is helpful to diagnose the condition you are suffering from.

– Breathing tests

These tests help to find out how well your lungs can inhale oxygen.

– Imaging tests:

It usually includes a chest X-ray or CT scan which helps your doctor to see inside your lungs where they look for inflammation and scarring.

What are the Treatment Options Available for Black Lung Disease?

There is no cure for this disease and the treatments aim to make you feel better and manage the symptoms. A lung transplant might cure black lung disease and some other procedures to treat this disease include:

– Medication

Medication that decreases inflammation in your lungs and supports breathing might be prescribed by your doctor.

– Pulmonary rehabilitation

Here you will be taught exercises to improve your lung strength and breathing abilities which will help you stay active and breathe more efficiently.

– Supplemental oxygen

Also known as oxygen therapy, a device that delivers extra oxygen into your lungs is used in this treatment procedure. This is done for severe cases of black lung disease.

Living with Black Lung Disease

Even though you might feel better with medication and lifestyle changes, getting diagnosed with Black lung disease can be hard to come to terms with because its symptoms can be quite uncomfortable and painful. It’s a lifelong condition without a cure (though lung transplant can cure it, it’s quite expensive along with being a tough process that is done only in severe and rare cases). If you are diagnosed recently, or your symptoms are getting worse which you are finding difficult to deal with, you should meet your doctor and get treatment to control and manage the symptoms. You can also join support groups which will help you to cope with the situation better.

Whom to Consult?

If you work near or in a coal mine, you must get regular physical check ups because this disease mostly occurs in people who work in coal mines. Your doctor will monitor your lung function and breathing and detect any sign of this disease earlier. It helps to manage the symptoms more easily as compared to getting diagnosed later in life. Also if you notice symptoms of black lung disease then meet your doctor and get yourself diagnosed and after getting the results, your doctor will start your treatment.

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