Byssinosis is an occupational disease of the lungs caused by inhalation of cotton dust or dusts from other vegetable fibers such as flax, hemp, or sisal. Byssinosis is a chronic, asthma-like narrowing of the airways. Also called brown lung disease,
byssinosis results from inhaling particles of cotton, flax, hemp, or jute.
Inhalation of the dust produced by industrial processing of textiles can cause byssinosis. An asthma-like condition results from exposure to dust in sensitive individuals. Byssinosis has been recognized as an occupational hazard for textile workers for less than 50 years. More than 800,000 workers in the cotton, flax, and rope-making industries are exposed in the workplace to airborne particles that can cause byssinosis. Only workers in mills that manufacture yarn, thread, or fabric have a significant risk of dying of this disease. Byssinosis occurs almost exclusively in people who work with unprocessed cotton. Those who work with flax and hemp may also develop the condition. People who open bales of raw cotton or who work in the first stages of cotton processing seem to be most affected.
Preventative measures in the U.S. have reduced the number of cases, but it remains common in developing countries. Smoking increases the risk for this disease. Repeated exposure to the offending substances may lead to chronic lung disease and shortness of breath or wheezing.
Symptoms are usually more pronounced when returning to work after a weekend, holiday, or vacation and subside as the worker becomes reaccustomed to the environment. As many as 25% of workers with byssinosis have symptoms that continue or recur throughout the workweek. More severe breathing problems seem to result both from exposure to high levels of dust and from longer dust exposure. Workers who also smoke cigarettes suffer the most severe impairment.
The diagnosis is made by using a test that shows decreasing lung capacity over the course of a workday; usually, this decrease is greatest on the first day of the workweek. Obstructive patterns are likely in patients who have had recurrent symptoms for more than 10 years.
The most important treatment of byssinosis is to remove the source of exposure to the offending agent. Reduction of dust levels within the factory by improving machinery or ventilation will help prevent byssinosis. Some people may have to change jobs to avoid further exposure. Medications such as bronchodilators will usually improve symptoms. Corticosteroids may be prescribed in more severe cases.
Stopping smoking is very important for people with this condition. Respiratory treatments, including nebulizers and postural drainage, may be prescribed if the condition becomes chronic. Home oxygen therapy may also be needed if low blood oxygen levels are detected. Physical exercise programs, breathing exercises, and patient education programs are often very helpful for people with a chronic lung disease.