Asbestosis is one of several illnesses that someone exposed to asbestos fibers may develop. It may not get as much attention as lung cancer or mesothelioma, but asbestosis is a serious illness that causes debilitating symptoms and has no cure. There is no other cause or risk factor for asbestosis other than the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will get this illness, but everyone exposed is at a high risk for it.
Asbestosis is a lung condition caused by the damage that inhaled asbestos fibers do to lung tissues. The damage over time causes scarring, known as fibrosis, which ultimately leads to symptoms like difficulty breathing and pain. Because this illness is not a type of cancer, the life expectancy for people diagnosed with it is good, although there is no cure.
Asbestos is a natural mineral that has been in use for insulation, fire retarding, and increasing strength in building materials for thousands of years. Its use in construction and shipbuilding really exploded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was considered effective and inexpensive and was used in many industries for a lot of different applications.
The fibers of asbestos can become airborne and when they do may be inhaled. When inhaled, these fibers lodge in the tissues in the body where they cause irritation and damage. People most at risk for this exposure worked in jobs with asbestos materials. These jobs include construction, mining, ship building, and jobs in the U.S. Navy.
What is Asbestosis?
Some people exposed to asbestos may develop a type of cancer. Lung cancer is most common, but the very deadly and rare mesothelioma is also possible. Another condition that anyone exposed to asbestos may develop is asbestosis. This is a chronic lung illness that results from the formation of scar tissue in the lungs because of asbestos inhalation. The symptoms of this condition may be mild, moderate, or severe, but like other asbestos-related diseases, don’t necessarily appear until decades after the exposure occurred.
Prevention is crucial for asbestosis because there is no treatment that will cure it. Knowing how to work safely around asbestos can prevent this illness. How severe it will be in an individual depends on the level and duration of exposure. Those that were exposed to asbestos regularly and for long periods of time are more likely to have severe symptoms.
Symptoms of Asbestosis
The symptoms of asbestosis often don’t occur, or not severe enough to be noticed, until ten to 40 years after asbestos exposure. The symptoms may include shortness of breath, dry and persistent coughing, tightness and pain in the chest, a loss of appetite that causes weight loss, and clubbing of the fingers or toes as well as fingernail and toenail abnormalities. Clubbing means the fingers or toes are rounded and wide at the tips.
If you experience these symptoms, especially if you know or suspect you have experienced asbestos exposure, you should see your doctor for a diagnosis. Your doctor will begin with a physical exam and then will probably want to perform imaging scans of your lungs. This may start with a chest X-ray to see if you have fluid in your lungs, which can rule out pneumonia. You may also get a CT scan to get a better image of the lungs or a lung function test to determine how well your lungs are working.
If your doctor or a specialist suspects you may have a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure, like lung cancer or mesothelioma, you may also have a biopsy done. This involves the removal of a small amount of tissue to be examined under a microscope. Scans may show that your lung tissue is thickened, which could be characteristic of the scar tissue caused by asbestosis. However, a biopsy can rule out that the thickened tissue is not cancerous.
Unfortunately there is no treatment that can cure asbestosis or reverse the damage the asbestos has already caused to your lungs. However, there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can be made to help relieve symptoms and prevent the damage from getting worse. Quitting smoking is the most important thing anyone diagnosed with asbestosis can do to feel better. Of course, if you are still being exposed to asbestos, halting that exposure is also crucial.
Treatments to make symptoms less severe and to make life easier with asbestosis include supplemental oxygen. This helps deliver more oxygen. If you have asbestosis, the scar tissue in your lungs is preventing you from breathing deeply and getting as much oxygen as you need. You may also be prescribed aerosol medications which can make breathing easier by thinning out fluids in the lungs. People with asbestosis are also encouraged to be vaccinated for the flu and other respiratory infections. In extreme cases of asbestosis scarring, a lung transplant may be a treatment option.
The prognosis for asbestosis varies greatly by individual. The amount of exposure to asbestos that has occurred, the duration of that exposure, and lifestyle factors such as smoking, age and general health al affect the prognosis. Although it is uncomfortable and limiting to live with asbestosis, the overall prognosis is better than for those people exposed to asbestos that develop mesothelioma or lung cancer.
Living with Asbestosis
Living with a condition that impairs breathing and that has no cure is difficult, but making important lifestyle choices can make it easier. Practicing generally healthy habits is important. Eat well and get good nutrition, drink plenty of water, get moderate exercise if you can, and get plenty of sleep. With a lung condition it is especially important to try to avoid infections and to avoid being exposed to air pollutants.
If you have been diagnosed with asbestosis and you suspect you were exposed to asbestos through your workplace, you may have a case to make that could win you compensation. Asbestos lawyers are familiar with the laws relating to workplace illness and asbestos and can help you make a case against an employer or the maker of materials that contained the asbestos that made you ill.
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