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Conditions related to asbestos exposure and mesothelioma include pleural plaques, pleural effusion, pleural thickening, COPD, interstitial lung disease, and other types of cancer. If you were exposed to asbestos, symptoms of these conditions might not occur until decades later.
What Does Asbestos Do to the Body?
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 shipbuilding.
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.
How Much Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma and Other Illnesses?
Experts have concluded that there is no safe amount of asbestos exposure. However, there is a clear link between extensive exposure and disease. Most people with asbestos illnesses experienced repeated exposure in the workplace.
What Are the Most Common Asbestos Diseases?
Mesothelioma is often what people think of first when considering the diseases asbestos causes. The truth is that mesothelioma is rare, even among people exposed to asbestos.
More common are benign conditions and symptoms, although these can lead to malignancy:
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural effusion
- Pleural thickening
Common Signs You’ve Been Exposed to Asbestos
There are many possible symptoms of asbestos diseases, but the most common are respiratory. This is because asbestos exposure usually occurs through inhalation. The fibers get in through the airways and affect tissues in and around the lungs.
Some of the earliest and most common signs of asbestos exposure are:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pains
Non-Malignant Asbestos Diseases
Non-malignant conditions are not cancerous. They are common complications of repeated asbestos exposure. Although not malignant, they can still cause discomfort, disability, and ultimately death.
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 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 a common result of asbestos exposure. Similar to plaques, pleural thickening develops from lodged asbestos fibers that cause 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.
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Restrictive lung disease
Pleural effusion occurs when fluid builds between the two layers of the pleura. It can cause shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, hiccups, fever, and fatigue.
Pleural effusion can be caused by pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and congestive heart failure; however, it is also commonly associated with asbestos-related conditions, including mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Treatment of pleural effusion involves draining the fluid. Draining the fluid 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.
Peritoneal and Pericardial Effusions
Respiratory conditions are more common with asbestos exposure, but it can also affect tissue in the abdomen and around the heart.
Peritoneal effusion occurs when fluid builds up in the abdominal cavity. This is also called ascites. Peritoneal mesothelioma causes this type of effusion, but other benign conditions can also cause it.
Pericardial effusion is fluid around the heart. Again, this can result from pericardial mesothelioma, but other causes include infections.
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 other toxins, like asbestos, may also be at risk.
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 a number of issues can cause. 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 pain, coughing, fever, weight loss, and clubbed fingers. There are many potential causes of ILD; however, asbestos exposure is a risk factor.
When ILD is caused by asbestos, it is called asbestosis. Other types of ILD can be worsened by exposure to asbestos.
Asbestosis occurs in about 50% of people who have experienced occupational asbestos exposure.
Asbestosis is progressive. Even when asbestos exposure is eliminated, scarring will continue to worsen. Treatment for asbestosis manages symptoms and slows the disease. There is no known cure.
Malignant Asbestos Diseases – Cancer
Mesothelioma is cancer most often associated with asbestos; however, this mineral can cause other types of cancer:
- Lung cancer. Lung cancer is the most common non-mesothelioma cancer related to asbestos, although most cases of lung cancer are not asbestos-related.
- Ovarian. Ovarian cancer may result from the prolonged use of talcum powder that was contaminated with asbestos.
- Laryngeal. Cancer of the larynx can be connected to the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
- Throat and Esophageal. There is some limited evidence that asbestos can affect these tissues in the airways and increase the risk of cancer.
- Gallbladder. Similarly, there is some evidence that asbestos exposure might increase the risk of this gastrointestinal cancer.
- Cholangiocarcinoma. Inflammation caused by asbestos fibers might be a contributor to cholangiocarcinoma, also known as bile duct cancer.
It is not fully understood how asbestos fibers reach these organs and tissues. Treatment of these cancers varies 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.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.