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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and mesothelioma may be related by a common cause: 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?
COPD is a chronic illness that progressively worsens over time. There is no cure for COPD; however, 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
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.
Asbestos and 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.
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.