What is Byssinosis?

J.M. Willhite

Byssinosis is a disease of the lungs resulting from the inhalation of dust produced by cotton or vegetable fibers. Classified as a form of occupational asthma, byssinosis can lead to chronic lung disease, including life-long asthma. There is no cure for byssinosis, so reducing or eliminating dust exposure is essential for successful treatment.

In byssinosis, inhaling fibrous dust causes the lungs to become inflamed, restricting the airways.
In byssinosis, inhaling fibrous dust causes the lungs to become inflamed, restricting the airways.

Individuals diagnosed with byssinosis or brown lung disease, generally work in the textile industry or have been consistently exposed to fibrous dust for a period of time. Asthmatic individuals or those who smoke are especially susceptible to the effects of fibrous dust on the respiratory system. Symptoms of byssinosis vary by individual and may include coughing, nasal congestion, and tightness in the chest.

Coughing may be a symptom of byssinosis.
Coughing may be a symptom of byssinosis.

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As an individual inhales the fibrous dust, his or her lungs may become inflamed, causing a constriction of the airways and making it difficult to breathe. Medical attention should be sought when symptoms intensify in severity, frequency, and duration. It is important for individuals experiencing symptoms to note their onset, duration, and intensity to aid with the examination process should medical attention be needed.

During a medical examination a physician will ask a series of questions about the individual’s work environment and how it may relate to symptom onset. A diagnosis of byssinosis may be confirmed by examining the patient’s complete medical history and performing a chest x-ray and pulmonary function tests. To establish the level of an individual’s lung function, a variety of measurements are taken.

Lung volume is determined by the administration of a spirometry test which measures how much air an individual is able to inhale and exhale. Key measurements of the spirometry test include forced vital capacity (FVC) and forced expiratory volume (FEV-1). Forced vital capacity represents the largest amount of air the individual forcefully exhales following a deep breath. The amount of air expelled from the individual’s lungs is known as forced expiratory volume.

The inhalation of helium or nitrogen gas is also used to measure lung volume. An individual breathes a concentration of one of these gasses through a tube for a few breaths. Upon exhalation, the concentration of the gas accumulates in a chamber attached to the tube. The amount of gas exhaled is registered and contrasted with what was inhaled to determine how well oxygen moves into the blood from the lungs.

An essential aspect of successful treatment for byssinosis is to reduce exposure to fibrous dust. A treatment regimen may include the use of medications such as bronchodilators to improve symptoms. In cases where symptoms are severe, a corticosteroid may be prescribed. Complications associated with byssinosis include permanent lung damage and the development of chronic lung disease. If exposure to fibrous dust is not reduced or eliminated, the alleviation of symptoms will take longer, increasing the risk of permanent lung damage.

Byssinosis may be confirmed by performing a chest x-ray.
Byssinosis may be confirmed by performing a chest x-ray.

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