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Asbestosis is a progressive, debilitating, and incurable lung disease that causes pain and difficulty breathing. Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos develops this illness, but everyone exposed is at high risk. Life expectancy for patients diagnosed with asbestosis varies, and it increases the risk of developing cancer.
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 in 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.
What is Asbestosis?
Some people exposed to asbestos may develop cancer. Lung cancer is most common, but aggressive mesothelioma is also a possibility.
Another condition that may develop after asbestos exposure is asbestosis. Asbestosis is a progressive scarring in the lungs. 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.
Symptoms of Asbestosis
Asbestosis usually develops slowly, and a person may not notice symptoms until decades after exposure to asbestos dust. Symptoms may 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.
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 and then perform imaging scans of your lungs.
This may start with 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.
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; however, a biopsy can determine if the thickened tissue is cancerous.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment to cure asbestosis or reverse the damage the asbestos has caused on the lungs; however, treatments and lifestyle changes can help relieve symptoms and prevent worsening damage. Quitting smoking is the most important thing anyone diagnosed with asbestosis can do.
Treatments to lessen the severity of make symptoms include receiving 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.
You may also be prescribed aerosol medications. These medications make breathing easier by thinning out fluids in the lungs. People with asbestosis are also encouraged to receive vaccinations 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; however, breathing may become more difficult over time, even after asbestos exposure is no longer an issue.
The amount of asbestos exposure, the duration of that exposure, and lifestyle factors such as smoking, age, and general health affect prognosis.
Although it is uncomfortable, the overall prognosis for asbestosis is better than it is for individuals who develop mesothelioma or lung cancer.
Living with Asbestosis
Living with an incurable condition that impairs breathing is difficult; however, making important lifestyle choices can ease the difficulty. Practicing healthy habits is important. Good nutrition, sufficient hydration, moderate exercise, and adequate sleep will improve the quality of life.
With a lung condition, it is important to avoid infections and exposure to air pollutants. These could lead to serious complications.
If you have been diagnosed with asbestosis and suspect you were exposed to asbestos through your workplace, you may have a case for compensation. Asbestos lawyers are familiar with laws relating to workplace illness and asbestos. An experienced attorney can help you make a case against an employer or the manufacturer of asbestos-containing materials that caused your illness.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
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.