Asbestosis

Written by Amanda Delgado and Marijane Leonard | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Asbestosis is a lung disease that develops from the presence of asbestos fibers, which lead to scarring. It restricts your breathing and interferes with the ability of oxygen to enter the bloodstream. Other names for this disease are pulmonary fibrosis and interstitial pneumonitis. Many cases come from workplace exposure to asbestos before federal laws regulating it were enacted in the mid-1970s. This disease takes years to develop and can be life-threatening. There were more than 3,000 deadly cases of it in the United States from 1999 and 2004, according to the American Lung Association. (ALA)

Causes and Risk Factors Associated With Asbestosis

When you inhale asbestos fibers, they can become embedded in your lungs and lead to the formation of scar tissue. The scarring can make it difficult for you to breathe because it prevents your lung tissue from expanding and contracting normally.

If you worked in an industry associated with asbestos before federal laws to regulate exposure were put into place, you could face a higher risk of the disease. Asbestos was commonly found in construction and fireproofing jobs in addition to jobs related to asbestos mining and milling. It is still used in certain industries but is closely monitored by the government through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. If you smoke, you also face a much higher chance of developing asbestosis and other related diseases.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Asbestos

In most cases, symptoms don’t start to appear until around 20 years after exposure.

Common symptoms of asbestosis include:

  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in the chest
  • persistent cough with mucus
  • chest pain
  • appetite loss
  • finger clubbing (enlarged fingertips)
  • nail deformities

Testing for and Diagnosing Asbestos

Your doctor will perform several tests to determine whether you have asbestosis and to rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms. Your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal breath sounds as part of a physical exam. Your doctor will also order X-rays to look for a white or honeycomb appearance on your lungs or chest. Pulmonary (lung) function tests will be used to measure the amount of air you can inhale and the airflow to and from your lungs. Your doctor might also test to see how much oxygen is transferred from your lungs to your bloodstream. Computerized tomography (CT) scans can be used to examine your lungs in more detail. Your doctor might also order a biopsy to look for asbestos fibers in a sample of your lung tissue.

Treatment Options for Asbestos

Asbestosis cannot be cured. There are a few treatments that can help control or reduce symptoms. Prescription inhalers may help loosen the congestion in your lungs. Supplemental oxygen in the form of a mask or tubes that fit inside your nose can help if you have severe difficulty breathing. A lung transplant might be an option if your condition is extreme. Asbestosis treatments also involve preventing the disease from getting worse. You can do this by avoiding further exposure to asbestos and by quitting smoking.

Long-Term Outlook Complications of Asbestos

Asbestosis can lead to malignant mesothelioma, a severe form of lung cancer. Other types of lung cancer may develop in patients who smoke. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is another serious condition that can result. A buildup of fluid around your lungs, known as pleural effusion, is also associated with asbestosis.

Factors that affect the severity of the disease include how long you were exposed to asbestos and how much of it you inhaled. The condition progresses at a slower rate once your exposure to asbestos stops. People who have the disease but do not develop complications can survive for decades.

What to do if You’ve Been Exposed

If you’ve been dealing with asbestos exposure for more than 10 years, you should visit your doctor for a chest X-ray and screening every three to five years. Be sure to use of every piece of safety equipment at work and follow all safety procedures if your job regularly exposes you to asbestos. Employers must watch the levels of exposure in the workplace and only allow work that involves dealing with asbestos to be done in specified areas. Federal laws also require workplaces to have decontamination areas. Employee training sessions are required as well. Routine medical exams, which can lead to an early diagnosis of asbestosis, are also covered under federal law.

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