Asbestosis is a lung disease that develops when asbestos fibers cause scarring in your lungs. The scarring restricts your breathing and interferes with the ability of oxygen to enter your bloodstream. Other names for this disease are pulmonary fibrosis and interstitial pneumonitis.
Many cases originate 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. The total number of asbestos-related deaths in the United States may exceed 200,000 by the year 2030, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
In most cases, symptoms don’t start to appear until approximately 20 years (range 10 to 40 years) after exposure to asbestos.
Common symptoms of asbestosis include:
- shortness of breath
- tightness in your chest
- persistent dry cough
- chest pain
- appetite loss
- finger clubbing (enlarged fingertips)
- nail deformities
Causes and Risk Factors
When you inhale asbestos fibers, they can become embedded in your lungs and lead to the formation of scar tissue. This scarring is known as asbestosis. The scarring can make it difficult for you to breathe because it prevents your lung tissue from expanding and contracting normally.
You may face a higher risk of developing the disease if you worked in an industry associated with asbestos before federal laws to regulate exposure were put into place. Asbestos was commonly found in construction and fireproofing jobs. Asbestos is still used in certain industries, but it’s closely monitored by the government through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
You also face a much higher chance of developing asbestosis and other related diseases if you smoke.
Your doctor will perform several tests to learn whether you have asbestosis and to rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms.
First, your doctor will usually use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal breath sounds as part of a physical exam. Your doctor may also order X-rays to look for a white or honeycomb appearance on your lungs or chest. Pulmonary (lung) function tests may 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. 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.
Asbestosis can’t be cured. However, there are a few treatments that can help control or reduce symptoms. Prescription inhalers may help loosen congestion in your lungs. Supplemental oxygen from a mask or tubes that fit inside your nose can help if you have severe difficulty breathing.
Asbestosis treatments also involve preventing the disease from getting worse. You can do this by avoiding further exposure to asbestos and by quitting smoking.
A lung transplant might be an option if your condition is severe.
Complications and Outlook
Asbestosis can lead to malignant mesothelioma, a severe form of lung cancer. Other types of lung cancer may develop if you smoke. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is another serious condition that can result from asbestosis. 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.
If you’ve been dealing with asbestos exposure for more than ten years, you should visit your doctor for a chest X-ray and screening every 3 to 5 years. Be sure to use 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.
You should contact the nearest OSHA office if you think your employer doesn’t comply with these standards. They can check your workplace and provide more information on health issues. They also keep track of emergencies and workplace accidents.