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Asbestos is an insidious material. The small fibers of this extensively used natural material have been able to work their way into the bodies of many people causing tissue damage, illness, and death. Not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos will get sick, but too many do and suffer the consequences of debilitating symptoms, progressively poor health, and terminal illness.

Mesothelioma is among the best known illnesses caused by asbestos. It is a cancer that attacks the thin, double layer of tissue that covers many organs in the body. 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 know or suspect you worked around and were exposed to asbestos on the job, your illnesses may not show up until decades later. Get screened as early as possible so treatments are more likely to be effective.

How Asbestos Causes Illness

Asbestos is a natural mineral that has been prized in the past for its availability, low cost, ability to resist heat, fire, and electricity, and its lightweight strength. Ship building and construction are two industries that used the most asbestos, but other workers who may have been exposed range from firefighters to school teachers.

The danger in asbestos lies in its tiny fibers, which can easily come loose from the material and become airborne. From there people may inhale the fibers or they may settle on food or drinks and be accidentally consumed. The tiny fibers move through the body, but are pointy and sharp. They can easily become lodged in tissue where they trigger inflammatory and immune responses that cause tissue damage.

Pleural Plaques

One of the most common results of damage caused by asbestos fibers is the formation of pleural plaques. These are areas of thickening in the pleura, where asbestos fibers caused damage. Plaques are usually not symptomatic, although they may decrease lung function minimally. They are not progressive and do not typically lead to more damage in the future. Most people find out they have plaques after being screened for some unrelated condition. While plaques themselves are not considered a risk factor for mesothelioma, they can indicate that a person was likely exposed to asbestos, which is a risk factor.

Diffuse Pleural Thickening

Also known as just pleural thickening, this is also a fairly common result of asbestos exposure. It is similar to plaques in that lodged asbestos fibers cause tissue damage. However, pleural thickening is much more serious and extensive. It is characterized by the formation of scar tissue throughout the pleura, which causes the tissue to thicken.

Pleural thickening is progressive and not reversible. It cannot be cured with any treatment, but treatments can slow the progression of the disease and help a patient manage symptoms. The symptoms commonly caused by pleural thickening include chest pains, breathlessness, and difficulty breathing. When the thickening has progressed to a severe state, it can cause restrictive lung disease and prevent the lungs from fully expanding.

Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion is an uncomfortable condition that occurs when fluid builds up between the two layers of the pleura. It can cause symptoms that include shortness of breath, a cough, chest pains—especially with deep breathing—hiccups, fever, and fatigue. Pleural effusion can be caused by things like pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and congestive heart failure, but it is also commonly associated with asbestos-related conditions, including mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Treating pleura effusion involves draining the fluid. Doing so relieves symptoms, but the effusion is likely to come back again and again if the underlying cause cannot be cured or well controlled. Catheters, thoracentesis, or more long-term strategies like a pleurodesis that closes the pleural space permanently, can all be used to treat pleural effusion.

COPD

COPD is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and it is usually a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis or is caused by one or the other. Smoking is the number one cause of COPD, but people who were exposed to asbestos and other toxins may also be at risk of developing COPD. COPD can also be made worse by being exposed to asbestos.

COPD is characterized by a mucus-producing cough, chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, frequent respiratory infections, weight loss, and edema. COPD symptoms result from the restricted flow of air through the airways, which can be caused by a number of issues. Treatment for COPD manages symptoms and seeks to prevent progression of the disease. There is no cure yet for this illness.

Interstitial Lung Disease – Asbestosis

Interstitial lung disease, or ILD, is inflammation in the lungs that leads to scarring. The interstitium is the tissue that lines and supports 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, but exposure to asbestos may be a risk factor.

When ILD is caused by asbestos, it is called asbestosis. Other types of ILD, caused by other factors, can be worsened by exposure to asbestos. The disease is progressive, and while eliminating asbestos can slow it down, the scarring will continue to get worse. Treatment for asbestosis helps to manage symptoms and slow down the disease, but cannot cure it.

Other Types of Cancer

Mesothelioma is the type of cancer most often associated with asbestos, but there are other types of cancer that this mineral can cause. Lung cancer is the most common, but asbestos fibers may also cause ovarian cancer, laryngeal cancer, and possibly esophageal, throat, or gallbladder cancer. How the fibers of asbestos get to these other organs and tissues in the body is not fully understood. Treatment and outlook for these cancers vary depending on the individual and the stage of the cancer.

Asbestos has been implicated in many conditions, most related to the lungs and airways. If you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos at work, talk to your doctor about the screening tests you should undergo to catch any of these illnesses as early as possible. Even if you have no symptoms, it is important to start thinking about how asbestos may be impacting your health.

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