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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Mesothelioma

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is an inflammatory condition of the lungs. It causes airflow to be obstructed, which makes breathing difficult and uncomfortable. It is a chronic condition that can be treated and controlled. Causes of COPD include exposure to toxic chemicals. Most often it is caused by smoking, but other airborne pollutants, like asbestos, can cause or increase the risk of developing COPD.

Other conditions contribute to COPD and may be the underlying cause of it. These include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Someone with mesothelioma from asbestos exposure may also experience COPD, although the two can also be easily confused because of similar symptoms. If you have both mesothelioma and COPD, breathing may be very difficult, but there are steps you can take and treatments you may receive that will alleviate some of the symptoms.

mesothelioma copd

What is COPD?

COPD is a chronic illness that gets progressively worse with time. There is no cure for it although the severity of symptoms may be reduced by treatments. It is characterized by reduced airflow through the airways of the respiratory system. This can happen as a result of a number of different factors: different parts of the airways lose elasticity, the air sacs in the lungs lose structural integrity, more mucous is produced than is normal, or airway walls become inflamed and thickened.

Symptoms of COPD

Because COPD is progressive and gets worse over time, the initial symptoms may not be very severe. They may include coughing, excess mucous production, a tight feeling in the chest, wheezing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing when physically active, edema, or swelling in the feet or legs, getting sick often with respiratory infections like cold or flu, and weight loss.

As the illness progresses the symptoms will become more severe and will interfere with normal activities more. You may also start to experience different symptoms, like poor blood circulation that causes a blue tint in the fingernails and lips, a rapid heartbeat, poor mental alertness, and difficulty breathing and talking.

Asbestos and COPD

The most common cause of COPD is also the most preventable: smoking cigarettes. However, there are many people who don’t smoke who end up developing this condition and the culprits are pollutants and toxic substances in the air. One of these may be asbestos, especially for someone who worked many years in an industry that used asbestos: construction, ship building and operation, and many other industrial types of jobs.

While a definite connection between asbestos and COPD has not been made, it is known that asbestos exposure can increase the risk of developing COPD. Exposure to asbestos can also make this illness worse and cause it to progress further and more quickly. Studies have found that people with COPD who were also exposed at work to airborne toxins—including asbestos—were more likely to die from it. In one study the participants were more than two times as likely to die as compared to those with COPD who were not exposed to workplace toxins.

Is it Mesothelioma or COPD?

The symptoms of these two conditions are very similar. Overlapping symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, tightness or pain in the chest, and fatigue. Both progress over time and the symptoms get worse, especially without any treatment. The main cause of COPD is smoking, while the main cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. But, again, there are overlaps; smoking can increase the risk of mesothelioma and asbestos exposure increases the risk of having COPD.

If you have symptoms of either or both of these illnesses, especially if you ever smoked or if there is any chance you could have been exposed to asbestos, you should be screened for both. It is not uncommon for people with mesothelioma to be misdiagnosed with conditions like COPD, which are similar and more common than mesothelioma. Insist on screening for mesothelioma, not just COPD and related conditions. It is important to get a correct diagnosis to receive the best and most effective treatments.

Treatment for COPD

To get diagnosed with COPD you will likely undergo a lung function test. You can get this test done, and it can help diagnose COPD even before you have symptoms if you think you have the risk factors for the disease. You may also need to get a chest X-ray or a CT scan to image the lungs as well as a blood gas analysis to determine if your lungs are functioning well enough to oxygenate your blood.

If you get a diagnosis for COPD you will also be given treatment options. Treatments help to manage symptoms, but cannot cure this disease. You may be given medications to dilate or relax and expand your airways so you can breathe more easily. Inhalable steroids may also help by reducing inflammation. You may be more prone to infections, so antibiotics may be used to fight those.

When the medications still don’t allow your lungs to bring in enough oxygen, you may need to undergo oxygen therapy. This simply means being given supplemental oxygen, usually through a portable oxygen tank. If the condition becomes severe, surgery may be an option. Surgical procedures can remove damaged parts of the lung to make breathing easier.


COPD and related lung conditions rank number three in the top causes of death in the U.S. Smoking is a big factor in this, but asbestos cannot be discounted as a cause and a risk factor. In spite of this daunting statistic, the prognosis for being diagnosed with COPD is not necessarily always grim. Many people live long lives with mild cases of COPD.

On the other hand, COPD can be a serious disability that prevents you from doing the things you used to do. Damage caused by COPD cannot be reversed, but symptoms can be relieved and progress of the disease can be slowed by treatments. If you have both COPD and mesothelioma, the outlook is not as positive. The COPD may worsen your mesothelioma symptoms significantly and curing this type of cancer is nearly impossible.

Living with both mesothelioma and COPD, or even just one of these diseases, has a big impact on quality of life because they make breathing difficult. If you have any of the symptoms of either of these conditions, request a full diagnosis for both. It is important to push for the most accurate diagnosis so you can get the right treatments that will extend your life and help you manage symptoms.

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