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Byssinosis is a rare lung disease. It’s caused by inhaling hemp, flax, and cotton particles and is sometimes referred to as brown lung disease. It’s a form of occupational asthma.
In the United States, byssinosis occurs almost exclusively in people who work with unprocessed cotton. People who open bales of cotton during the first stage of processing are at the highest risk. There’s also a type of byssinosis called grain worker’s lung that appears in people who work with grains.
Guidelines and laws in the United States have helped keep the number of people who get byssinosis to a minimum, but it’s still common in developing countries where safety measures might not be in place.
The symptoms of byssinosis usually appear during the beginning of the workweek and typically improve by the end of the week. If you’re exposed to dust particles for long periods, you may experience symptoms during the entire week.
The symptoms of byssinosis are similar to asthma and include tightness in the chest, wheezing, and coughing.
If you have a severe case, you may experience flu-like symptoms, such as:
The symptoms of byssinosis usually go away when you aren’t exposed to dust anymore. However, lung function can be permanently impaired if exposure is ongoing.
Byssinosis is most common in textile industry workers. It’s caused by the inhalation of raw flax, hemp, cotton dust, and similar materials.
Smoking may increase the risk of developing byssinosis. A history of asthma or allergies may also increase the risk.
To diagnose byssinosis, your doctor will ask you about recent activities and your work to determine if you’ve been in contact with textile dust.
Your doctor will probably perform a physical exam to check your lungs and may order a chest X-ray and CT scan of your lungs. Pulmonary function tests are also often used to check lung health.
Your doctor may give you a peak flow meter to test your lungs throughout the workweek. This meter tests how quickly you can expel air from your lungs. If your breathing changes during certain parts of the day or week, this meter will help your doctor determine when and where you’re being exposed.
The main treatment for byssinosis is to avoid exposure to harmful dust.
To relieve mild to moderate symptoms, your doctor may prescribe bronchodilators. These drugs help open constricted airways.
In more severe cases of byssinosis, inhaled corticosteroids may be prescribed. These reduce lung inflammation. However, these drugs can cause fungal infections in your mouth and throat. You can reduce this risk by rinsing your mouth after inhaling the medication.
If your blood oxygen levels are low, you may need supplemental oxygen therapy. For chronic byssinosis, a nebulizer or other respiratory treatment may be recommended.
Breathing exercises and physical activity can also help improve lung health and symptoms.
You may need to quit your job. Even though symptoms may diminish towards the end of the workweek, your lungs are still accumulating damage. Exposure to cotton, hemp, and flax dust over a period of years can cause irreversible damage to your lungs.
Byssinosis typically goes away after the exposure is over. It’s not considered a life-threatening or chronic disease. However, it’s important to identify the cause of your byssinosis. This can keep it from returning once it’s treated.
Byssinosis is preventable. If you work in a position that puts you at risk, wear a mask while working and especially while working near dust.
Companies in the United States have a legal obligation to protect you from dangerous products at work. Your employer is required to provide you with protective gear according to the guidelines created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This means OSHA requires them to provide you with a respirator or mask if you work around textile dust.
If you’re a smoker, quitting can also reduce your risk of byssinosis.
Written by: Carmella Wint and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Medically reviewed on: Feb 23, 2016: George Krucik, MD MBA
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