Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in rock and soil. People have used asbestos for centuries as candle wicks, cloth fiber, and other purposes.

Before the 1970s, asbestos was widely used as a building construction material. It provides insulation and fire resistance because it has high fiber strength and heat resistance.

However, there are numerous health risks linked to asbestos exposure, especially from breathing it in. Asbestos can remain in your lungs for a long time. It can cause scarring and inflammation in your lungs, leading to serious adverse health conditions.

In the United States, experts estimate about 20% of public and commercial buildings and millions of homes built before 1980 contain asbestos material. Thousands of people develop asbestos-related health problems each year after exposure at home, at work, or in public spaces. According to 2018 research, asbestos causes roughly 255,000 deaths globally each year.

This article will review the various health complications that asbestos poisoning can cause. We’ll look at what signs might suggest asbestos poisoning and what you should do after exposure.

Some common signs of asbestos poisoning include:

  • Shortness of breath: Inhaled asbestos fibers can scar your lungs and make it difficult to breathe. Shortness of breath (dyspnea) is often the first sign of an asbestos-related illness.
  • Swollen fingertips: About half of all people exposed to asbestos poisoning have fingertips that look wider and rounder.
  • Extreme tiredness: Fatigue often affects people experiencing asbestos poisoning due to lung and other body systems failing.
  • Wheezing: Inflamed lungs can cause you to make a whistling sound when you take a deep breath. If you experience wheezing and don’t smoke, this could be a sign of asbestos exposure.
  • Long-lasting dry cough: This can develop up to 40 years after exposure to asbestos as scar tissue forms over the lungs over time.

What should I do if I think I’ve been exposed to asbestos?

Signs of asbestos poisoning should be taken seriously, especially if you have a known recent exposure to asbestos. If you have been exposed to asbestos, even if you are not experiencing signs of asbestos poisoning, schedule a visit with a doctor. A doctor can help you determine your risk of developing asbestos poisoning and if you need to stay alert to any changes in your health status.

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The presence of asbestos in a building is not necessarily going to make you sick, and people who have contact with asbestos do not always go on to develop complications of asbestos poisoning.

Your risk of asbestos poisoning goes up when:

  • You breathe in a lot of asbestos in the air.
  • You are exposed to asbestos for a long time, such as hours or days.
  • You have had recent exposure to asbestos.
  • You already have lung or breathing conditions.
  • You smoke tobacco.

When complications occur, they span a range of serious conditions, mostly affecting the lung.


Asbestosis is caused by breathing in asbestos fibers, which scar the lungs. Most people who develop asbestosis have had high levels of exposure over long periods.

It can sometimes take years for asbestosis symptoms to develop. Breathing often becomes more difficult because scarred lung tissue does not easily allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to flow.


Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer. It affects the outer part of the lungs and chest cavity, the lining of the abdominal cavity, or membranes around other internal organs. You may not experience the symptoms of mesothelioma until 30 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos.

Doctors diagnose about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma each year.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is a type of tumor that takes over and blocks air passages in the lungs. A person’s risk of developing lung cancer is greatly increased by asbestos exposure, especially when combined with smoking tobacco.

Asbestos is responsible for about 55% to 85% of all occupational lung cancer cases.

Other cancers

Asbestos exposure can also increase a person’s risk of other cancers. These cancers may affect the:

These cancers may not develop for many years after a person’s exposure to asbestos.

Pleural disease

Pleural disease is a noncancerous condition that can thicken or cause fluid to form on the membrane around the lungs and chest cavity. Some people may experience breathing problems with pleural changes, while others may experience decreased lung function.

In the United States, people working in construction or maintenance trades are at the greatest risk of asbestos poisoning. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, about 1.3 million U.S. workers in these industries are at risk of exposure. People who mine asbestos or work in processing the mineral are also at higher risk of asbestos poisoning.

While less hazardous materials have replaced many former uses of asbestos, some construction materials still use asbestos today. To help reduce people’s risk of asbestos poisoning, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed banning new uses of asbestos.

A doctor will check for asbestos poisoning by first taking a medical history and physical exam. To diagnose asbestos-related diseases, a doctor may order chest radiographs (X-rays) and screening pulmonary function tests.

It may also be necessary to run:

A specific diagnosis can bring a person one step closer to helpful treatment for asbestos poisoning.

Unfortunately, the lung damage caused by asbestos exposure is permanent. But it’s possible to treat and manage conditions related to asbestos poisoning. Treatment may help slow the disease and manage symptoms.

At-home treatments for asbestos poisoning include avoiding asbestos and other lung irritants such as cigarette smoke. If you smoke, quit as soon as possible. There are extra steps you can take to keep yourself healthy:

  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Get enough sleep regularly and get extra rest when needed.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Wash your hands regularly to reduce your risk of infection.
  • Get vaccinated for the flu and pneumonia if your doctor recommends it.
  • Stay indoors when air pollution levels or pollen counts are high.
  • Avoid breathing in the following:
    • secondhand smoke
    • traffic fumes
    • aerosol sprays
    • smog
    • vapors from cleaning agents and paint
  • In cold weather, keep your mouth and nose covered with a scarf to avoid breathing in cold air.

Your doctor may recommend specific medical treatments for asbestos poisoning. Some people may require oxygen machines to get more air into their lungs. Others may benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, an exercise program for people with lung damage.

In severe cases of asbestos poisoning, a doctor may recommend surgery and refer you to a lung transplant specialist.

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about asbestos exposure and poisoning:

How long does it take for asbestos to affect you?

The signs of asbestos poisoning may not appear for 10 to 40 years or more after exposure. Heavier and longer exposure increases your risk of complications, but even brief exposure can cause disease.

Can you die from asbestos poisoning?

Asbestos poisoning increases your risk of serious and sometimes fatal diseases, including asbestosis, cancer, and mesothelioma. The sooner you receive treatment for asbestos poisoning, the better your outlook.

Is asbestos poisoning contagious?

While asbestos poisoning is not contagious, cases of asbestos poisoning often occur together. A team of construction workers may all be exposed to asbestos at once. A person exposed to asbestos may carry it home on their clothing to family members from their job or while doing do-it-yourself home repairs.

Asbestos is a dangerous material that used to commonly be found in building materials. Since we’ve learned of its serious health complications, its use has become much less common.

Still, thousands of people experience asbestos exposure each year. Some will go on to develop asbestos poisoning and the complications it causes.

You cannot heal the lung damage caused by asbestos. But with medical and at-home treatment, it’s possible to manage symptoms.