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Imaging of occupational lung diseases

Paul Stark, MD
Section Editors
Nestor L Muller, MD, PhD
Talmadge E King, Jr, MD
Deputy Editors
Helen Hollingsworth, MD
Susanna I Lee, MD, PhD


A multitude of diseases can result from occupational exposure to dust, fumes, smoke, and biological agents. The most common acquired occupational lung diseases include occupational asthma, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, acute toxic inhalant syndromes, pneumoconioses, and tumors.

Among these, occupational asthma is likely the most common, yet it displays only limited imaging manifestations. The other diseases, including the pneumoconioses, yield characteristic imaging features that are the focus of this review. The clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and management of asbestosis, berylliosis, flock worker's lung, and silicosis, as well as a general approach to the evaluation of interstitial lung disease, are discussed separately. (See "Asbestos-related pleuropulmonary disease" and "Chronic beryllium disease (berylliosis)" and "Flock worker's lung" and "Silicosis" and "Approach to the adult with interstitial lung disease: Clinical evaluation" and "Approach to the adult with interstitial lung disease: Diagnostic testing".)


Occupational lung diseases include the pneumoconioses (interstitial lung diseases), hypersensitivity pneumonitis, bronchiolitis, byssinosis, and occupational asthma. Pneumoconioses result from inhalation and deposition of inorganic particles and mineral dust with subsequent reaction of the lung. Pneumoconioses can be subdivided into fibrogenic (eg, silica, coal, talc, asbestos), benign or inert (eg, iron, tin, barium), granulomatous (eg, beryllium), and giant cell pneumonia associated with hard metal inhalation (eg, cobalt) [1,2]. Occupational exposure to certain organic dusts, molds, and chemicals can lead to hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammatory reaction that is reversible if exposure is stopped in the acute or subacute phases. In unusual circumstances, organic particles like nylon flock can induce interstitial lung disease when inhaled by workers [3]. (See "Flock worker's lung".)

Inhalation of noxious gases and fumes can lead to noncardiogenic, increased permeability, pulmonary edema, constrictive bronchiolitis, or irritant-induced asthma, while byssinosis refers to an acute bronchoconstrictor response to inhalation of raw cotton, hemp, or flax, especially with exposure to bales of cotton, spinning, or carding [4,5]. Except for noncardiogenic, increased permeability, pulmonary edema, pulmonary function tests show airflow limitation, but the chest radiograph is normal. (See 'Noxious fumes and gases' below and 'Byssinosis' below.)

Four criteria have to be fulfilled in order to secure a diagnosis of occupational lung disease:

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Sep 18, 2017.
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