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Asbestos is insidious. Its small fibers can work their way into the body, causing tissue damage, illness, and death. Not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos will get sick. However, many of those exposed will suffer debilitating symptoms, progressively poor health, and terminal illness.
Mesothelioma is among the best known illnesses caused by asbestos. This rare form of cancer attacks the thin, double layer of tissue covering many of the body’s organs. Additionally, people who worked around asbestos may suffer from pleural plaques, pleural effusion, pleural thickening, COPD, interstitial lung disease, and other types of cancer. If you were exposed to asbestos, symptoms may not occur until decades later.
How Asbestos Causes Illness
Asbestos is a natural mineral long prized for its availability, low cost, and lightweight strength. Because asbestos has the ability to resist heat, fire, chemical corrosion, and electricity, it has been useful in construction and ship building. While workers in these industries faced the highest risk of exposure, other people from firefighters to school teachers may also have been exposed.
The danger lies in the tiny fibers of asbestos. These fibers can easily come loose and become airborne. Once airborne, these sharp, needle-like fibers can be inhaled or accidentally ingested. The fibers can easily become lodged in tissue where they trigger damaging inflammatory and immune responses.
One common result of damage caused by asbestos is the formation of pleural plaques. Pleural plaques are areas of thickening in the pleura. While these plaques do not usually present symptoms, they may minimally decrease lung function. Pleural plaques are not progressive, and therefore do not worsen over time. Most people discover they have plaques after screening for some unrelated condition. While plaques themselves are not considered a risk factor for mesothelioma, they can indicate a person was exposed to asbestos.
Diffuse Pleural Thickening
Diffuse pleural thickening (also known as simply “pleural thickening”), is also a common result of asbestos exposure. Similar to plaques, pleural thickening develops from lodged asbestos fibers that caused tissue damage. Pleural thickening, however, is more serious and extensive. It is characterized by scar tissue that forms throughout the pleura, causing the tissue to thicken.
Pleural thickening is progressive and irreversible. However, treatments can slow progression and help manage symptoms. Ssymptoms commonly caused by pleural thickening include chest pain, breathlessness, and difficulty breathing. When thickening has progressed to a severe state, it can cause restrictive lung disease and prevent full expansion of the the lungs.
Pleural effusion occurs when fluid builds between the two layers of the pleura. It can cause symptoms that include shortness of breath, cough, chest pains, hiccups, fever, and fatigue. Pleural effusion can be caused pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and congestive heart failure. However, it is also commonly associated with asbestos-related conditions, including mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Treatment of pleura effusion involves draining the fluid. Drainage relieves symptoms, although the effusion is likely to return if the underlying cause cannot be cured or controlled. A thoracentesis can provide short term relief of a pleural effusion. More long-term strategies include pleurodesis to permanently close the pleural space.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is usually a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking is the number one cause of COPD. However, people exposed to asbestos and other toxins may also be at risk. COPD can also worsen with asbestos exposure.
COPD is characterized by a mucus-producing cough, chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, frequent respiratory infections, weight loss, and edema. Symptoms result from restricted airways, which can be caused by a number of issues. Treatment for COPD manages symptoms and seeks to prevent the disease’s progression. There is no known cure for COPD.
Interstitial Lung Disease – Asbestosis
Interstitial lung disease (ILD) is inflammation in the lungs that leads to scarring. The interstitium is the tissue lining and supporting the tiny sacs of the lungs called the alveoli. When this tissue becomes inflamed and scarred, it causes shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pains, coughing, fever, weight loss, and even clubbed fingers. There are many potential causes of ILD. However, asbestos exposure may be a risk factor.
When ILD is caused by asbestos, it is called asbestosis. Other types of ILD can be worsened by exposure to asbestos. The disease is progressive. Even when asbestos exposure is elminated, scarring will continue to worsen. Treatment for asbestosis manages symptoms and slows the disease. There is no known cure for ILD.
Other Types of Cancer
Mesothelioma is the cancer most often associated with asbestos. However, this mineral can cause other types of cancer. Lung cancer is the most common, but asbestos may also cause ovarian, laryngeal, esophageal, throat, and gallbladder cancers. It is not fully understood how asbestos fibers reach these organs and tissues. Treatment of these cancers vary depending on the individual and cancer stage.
Asbestos has been implicated in many conditions, most related to the lungs and airways. If you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos, talk to your doctor about screening tests for these illnesses. Even if you have no symptoms, it is important to consider how asbestos may be impacting your health.
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.