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Asbestosis is a chronic and incurable lung disease caused by asbestos exposure. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pain and tightness. Life expectancy for patients diagnosed with asbestosis varies, and it increases the risk of developing cancer.
What Is Asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition caused by asbestos exposure. It is a progressive scarring in the lungs and a type of interstitial lung disease. As the body attempts to remove asbestos dust from the lungs, scar tissue forms, making breathing painful or difficult.
Over time symptoms may worsen as more tissue damage occurs. Symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe, but like other asbestos-related diseases, they may not appear until decades after the exposure.
Prevention is crucial for asbestosis because there is no known cure. Knowing how to work safely around asbestos can prevent this illness.
The severity of the condition depends on the level and duration of asbestos exposure. Those exposed to asbestos regularly and for long periods of time are more likely to have severe symptoms.
Asbestosis and Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos is a natural mineral used for insulation, fireproofing, and increasing strength in building materials for thousands of years. Its use in construction and shipbuilding expanded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Effective and inexpensive, asbestos was used in many industries for many different applications.
The fibers of asbestos can become airborne. People can then inhale them. When inhaled, asbestos fibers lodge in the tissues of the body, where they cause irritation and cell damage.
People most at risk for exposure worked in jobs with asbestos materials. These jobs include construction, mining, shipbuilding, and jobs in the U.S. Navy.
Who Is at Risk for Asbestosis?
Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos is at risk for developing asbestosis later. Not everyone knows if they were exposed to asbestos. There is a strong chance you encountered asbestos if you worked in one of these high-risk industries before 1980:
- Asbestos mining
- Boiler making
- Auto or aircraft repair
- Shipbuilding or repair
- Industrial manufacturing
- Textile milling
- Power generation
- U.S. Navy
Occupational exposure was the most common source of asbestos exposure, but not the only one. Some people were exposed indirectly by a family member who brought asbestos fibers home on their clothing. Others were exposed by a nearby factory or mine, as was the case with the W.R. Grace mine in Libby, Montana.
Other risk factors contribute to the development of asbestosis include:
- Type of asbestos that caused exposure
- Duration and frequency of asbestos exposure
- Concentration of asbestos in exposure location
- Genetic factors and family history
- Health and lifestyle factors, including smoking
Symptoms of Asbestosis
Asbestosis usually develops slowly, and a person may not notice symptoms until decades after exposure to asbestos dust. When it finally appears, shortness of breath is often an early warning symptom of asbestosis.
All possible symptoms of asbetosis include:
- Shortness of breath
- Dry and persistent cough
- Chest tightness and pain
- Loss of appetite
- Clubbing of the fingers or toes
Clubbing means the fingers or toes are rounded and wide at the tips.
How Long Does it Take for Asbestosis to Show?
Asbestos exposure causes illnesses with long latency periods. The latency period is the time from asbestos exposure to signs of disease.
The asbestosis latency period is not as long as that of mesothelioma, which can be 50 years or more. Asbestosis generally takes 20 to 30 years to show signs or symptoms.
How Is Asbestosis Diagnosed?
If you experience these symptoms, especially if you may have been exposed to asbestos, you should see your doctor for a diagnosis.
- Your doctor will begin with a physical exam, listening to your lungs, and asking about your health history and any asbestos exposure.
- Next, they will likely request imaging scans. These include a chest X-ray to check for fluid in your lungs, which can rule out pneumonia. You may also get a CT scan for a clearer image of the lungs.
- Doctors may also perform a lung function test to determine how well your lungs are working. This involves blowing into a device called a spirometer. You might also need more thorough pulmonary tests to measure oxygen flow from your lungs to your bloodstream.
- To look more closely at tissues in the airways, your doctor might use a bronchoscope. This is a thin tube that goes down the throat and uses a camera to look for abnormalities.
- If your doctor or a specialist suspects you may have a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure, like lung cancer or mesothelioma, they may also perform a biopsy. A biopsy involves the removal of tissue to be examined under a microscope.
Scans may show your lung tissue is thickened, which could be characteristic of the scar tissue caused by asbestosis. A biopsy can determine if the thickened tissue is cancerous.
How Is Asbestosis Treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for asbestosis. There is no treatment that can reverse the damage the asbestos has caused to the lungs. Treatments and lifestyle changes can help relieve symptoms and prevent worsening damage.
Medical Treatments for Asbestosis
Medical treatments aim to improve symptoms and quality of life:
- Supplemental Oxygen. Scar tissue from asbestosis prevents deep breathing, often hindering the amount of oxygen your body receives. Supplemental oxygen will deliver more oxygen with each breath.
- Pulmonary Rehabilitation. A rehabilitation program can help restore some respiratory function and live easier with asbestosis. Therapy includes learning breathing and relaxation strategies and exercises to strengthen the lungs.
- Medications. You may also be prescribed aerosol medications. These medications make breathing easier by thinning out fluids in the lungs.
- Surgery. Some patients are candidates for lung transplant surgery. This is a very serious procedure with a high risk of complications.
Lifestyle Changes for Asbestosis
Medical treatments for asbestosis work best when supported by lifestyle changes:
- The most important thing a patient with asbestosis can do is quit smoking. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about effective cessation programs.
- People with asbestosis are also encouraged to receive vaccinations for the flu and other respiratory infections.
- If there is any chance of ongoing asbestos exposure, it must be stopped or limited.
- It also helps to avoid any kind of respiratory irritant. This includes staying inside on high ozone or pollen days.
- General healthy lifestyle choices help with the management of asbestosis symptoms. These include eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly.
Unfortunately, you cannot recover from asbestosis. Treatments and lifestyle choices are useful for managing symptoms and preventing the condition from getting worse. They help you live with asbestosis more comfortably.
What Is the Prognosis for Asbestosis?
The prognosis for asbestosis varies greatly by the individual. Even when asbestos exposure is no longer an issue, breathing often gets more difficult over time. Factors that affect prognosis and life expectancy for asbestos include:
- Duration and frequency of asbestos exposure
- Overall health
- Degree of lung damage at the time of diagnosis
- Pulmonary function level
A study of patients with asbestosis used these factors to predict life expectancy. They found that patients with early and minimal damage would live approximately 14 years. Patients with the most damage might live just under two years. The median life expectancy for all asbestosis patients was about ten years.
Although it is uncomfortable, the overall prognosis for asbestosis is better than it is for individuals who develop mesothelioma or lung cancer.
Tips for Preventing Asbestosis
Avoiding asbestos entirely is the best way to prevent asbestosis. If you work in an industry in which asbestos still exists, good safety practices can also prevent illness.
Talk to your employer about safety procedures and equipment. Request training if you don’t receive it already. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to provide information, training, protective equipment, and regular testing in worksites with asbestos.
If you live in an older home, an asbestos professional can find any dangerous asbestos materials. If you’re not sure, avoid doing any kind of renovations or repairs that would disturb asbestos.
How to Seek Compensation for Asbestosis
If you have been diagnosed with asbestosis and suspect you were exposed to asbestos through your workplace, you may have a case for seeking compensation. Asbestos claims and lawsuits are not just for mesothelioma. Asbestosis patients are also eligible to recover damages.
Asbestos lawyers are familiar with laws relating to workplace illness and asbestos. An experienced attorney can help determine which companies exposed you to asbestos and can be held liable.
If you are a veteran, you could be eligible for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A lawyer can help you with this as well. If your exposure occurred during military service, they can help you make a successful claim for disability benefits.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.