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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and mesothelioma can both be caused by asbestos exposure. COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung condition that causes airflow obstruction and difficulty breathing. While COPD is most often caused by smoking, other airborne pollutants, like asbestos, can trigger or increase the risk of developing this condition.
What Is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic and progressive inflammatory lung condition. There is no cure for COPD, but treatment may reduce the severity of symptoms.
COPD is characterized by reduced airflow through the airways of the respiratory system. This can happen due to several factors, including:
- Loss of airway elasticity
- Loss of lung air sac structural integrity
- Increased mucous production
- Inflamed or thickened airway walls
COPD describes two main primary conditions. Patients usually have both:
- Emphysema. This occurs when damage to the air sacs in the lungs makes it more difficult to breathe. The sacs are elastic and flexible when healthy and undamaged.
- Chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is ongoing inflammation, irritation, and mucus buildup in the airways that make breathing more difficult.
Facts About COPD
- More than 15 million Americans live with COPD.
- There are likely many more people with COPD but without a diagnosis.
- COPD is diagnosed more often in women.
- It is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. and a major source of disability.
COPD as a Misdiagnosis for Major Asbestos-Related Diseases
Asbestos exposure can cause serious illnesses, including pleural mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. These affect the respiratory system and cause symptoms similar to more common illnesses.
COPD and other respiratory conditions are sometimes diagnosed when a person really has an asbestos illness. Other common misdiagnoses include emphysema, pneumonia, and pulmonary fibrosis.
If you get a diagnosis of COPD or a similar illness and have been exposed to asbestos, ask for a second opinion to be sure you don’t have cancer.
Does COPD Cause Cancer?
Although asbestos exposure is connected to both mesothelioma and COPD, there is no evidence that having COPD increases the risk for mesothelioma.
On the other hand, COPD is considered a risk factor for lung cancer. This is probably because smoking is the primary cause of both.
What Are the Symptoms of COPD?
Because COPD is progressive, the initial symptoms may be mild. Early symptoms include:
- Excess mucous
- Tightness of the chest
- Shortness of breath when physically active
- Edema, swelling in the feet or legs
- Weight loss
- Frequent respiratory illness
As the illness progresses, symptoms will become more severe, often interfering with normal activities more. Patients may also experience poor blood circulation, causing a blue tint in the lips and fingernails, rapid heartbeat, poor mental alertness, and difficulty breathing and talking, severe symptoms that may require emergency treatment.
Many patients experience episodes of worse symptoms, even when the illness is largely under control with treatments. These come and go with varying frequencies.
Does Asbestos Cause COPD?
Smoking is the most common cause of COPD and is the most preventable; however, COPD in nonsmokers may be caused by air pollutants. One potential cause is asbestos, particularly for those who have worked in construction, shipbuilding and operation, and other industrial jobs.
Currently, there is no direct connection between asbestos and COPD; however, asbestos exposure does increase the risk of developing COPD. Asbestos exposure can also worsen COPD, causing it to progress more rapidly.
Studies have found people with COPD who were also exposed to airborne toxins in the workplace were more likely to die from it. In one study, participants were more than twice as likely to die when compared to COPD patients not exposed to workplace toxins.
Another study looked at construction and trade workers from the Department of Energy with COPD and related symptoms. The researchers found a significant link between the workers’ asbestos exposure and their current COPD. They also found connections between COPD and other workplace exposures.
Is it Mesothelioma or COPD?
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
- Pain in the chest
Both conditions progress over time. Symptoms also worsen, especially without proper treatment.
The main cause of COPD is smoking, and the main cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure; however, there are also overlaps here. For example, smoking can increase the risk of mesothelioma. While asbestos exposure increases the risk of having COPD.
If you have symptoms of one or both of these illnesses, you should be screened for both. People with mesothelioma are commonly misdiagnosed with conditions like COPD.
Insist on screening for mesothelioma as well as COPD and related conditions. Proper diagnosis is important to ensure you receive the most effective treatment.
Treatment for COPD
COPD diagnosis begins with a lung function test. This test can diagnose COPD even before you experience symptoms. You may also need a chest X-ray or CT scan to image the lungs. A blood gas analysis can determine if your lungs are functioning well enough to oxygenate your blood.
If you receive a COPD diagnosis, you will be given several treatment options. Treatments help manage symptoms, but there are no known cures.
Prescription medications can relax and expand airways, making breathing easier. Inhaled steroids to reduce inflammation can also assist with breathing. If you have COPD, you may be more prone to infections; therefore, antibiotics may be used to fight them.
When medications do not allow your lungs to bring in enough oxygen, you may need oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy is supplemental oxygen, usually given through a portable oxygen tank. If the condition becomes severe, surgery may be necessary to remove damaged lung tissue.
COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Smoking is a major factor. Asbestos, however, may be a risk factor. Despite this daunting statistic, COPD prognosis is not necessarily grim. Many people with mild cases of COPD live long lives.
COPD can be a serious disability, often preventing you from participating in normal physical activities. Damage caused by COPD is irreversible; however, medical treatment can relieve symptoms and slow the progress of the disease.
Can I Get a COPD Settlement?
If you can show that you suffered asbestos exposure on the job, you might be able to get compensation for COPD. Because there is a link between asbestos and COPD, a lawyer can potentially make a case for a settlement or a claim with an asbestos trust.
The Veterans Administration offers benefits for veterans whose debilitating illnesses resulted from active service. Exposure to asbestos or other toxins might have caused your COPD, so you could file for VA compensation.
Living with both mesothelioma and COPD can have a huge impact on quality of life. If you have symptoms of either disease, request a full diagnosis for both. It is important to receive the most accurate diagnosis to get proper treatment to manage symptoms and extend your life.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.