Symptoms of black lung disease

Black lung disease — otherwise known as coal worker’s pneumoconiosis — is a lung disease characterized by scarring of the lung tissue and difficulty breathing. There is no cure for it, but early and adequate treatment can help manage the symptoms and improve one’s quality of life.

According to the American Lung Association, black lung disease is mostly considered an “occupational illness.” It affects approximately 16% of coal workers in the United States and, despite decades of improvement, the incident rates have been on the rise in recent years. Experts attribute this to a few different factors, including advancements in coal mining technology and changes in the mineral content of the coal itself.

What causes black lung disease?

Experts often refer to black lung as a “coal miner’s” disease because it develops when one inhales coal dust over long periods of time. Coal dust contains particles that contain carbon which, when inhaled, settle on the lungs. In an attempt to fight away these foreign particles, the body triggers inflammation. In some cases, the inflammation becomes so severe it results in scarring of the lung tissue.

How does coal miner’s pneumoconiosis affect the body?

Health care professionals classify black lung disease in one of two ways: Simple and complicated. In simple cases of black lung disease, the lungs will have small amounts of scarring, which show up on CT scans or X-rays as small, round nodules. In complicated cases — which doctors refer to as “progressive massive fibrosis” — the lungs have severe scarring over larger areas. In either type of case, the symptoms take years to develop. Once they do, the afflicted will experience difficulty breathing to some extent.

What are the symptoms of black lung disease?

Per the American Lung Association, the symptoms of black lung disease can take years to develop after the initial exposure to coal dust. Once the disease has progressed to the point of presenting symptoms, the afflicted may experience shortness of breath, cough and tightness of the chest. Initially, these symptoms may only occur after strenuous activity. However, as the disease advances, symptoms may become a normal part of life. Without management or cessation of exposure to coal dust, the scarring may become so severe that it prevents oxygen from easily reaching the bloodstream. This can result in low blood pressure and strain on other organs, including the brain and heart, thereby leading to other symptoms.