Asbestosis is a chronic disease characterized by scarring in the lungs, which leads to long-term breathing complications. It is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos, but it is usually not diagnosed until decades after the exposure occurred.
Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis, a condition where lung tissue becomes scarred over time. It is not a type of cancer, but it has the same cause as mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers.
Incurable lung disease that makes breathing progressively more difficult
Usually caused by years of occupational asbestos exposure
Contributing cause of death for more than 1,000 Americans each year
Signifies an elevated risk of developing asbestos-related cancer
Most cases trace back to consistent exposure to asbestos-containing materials in construction sites, ships and industrial facilities. For an asbestos-related illness to develop, it usually takes years of regular asbestos exposure, followed by a latency period that may last decades before symptoms present.
There is no cure for asbestosis, but treatment can alleviate symptoms.
Because this disease is similar to other types of pulmonary fibrosis, diagnosing asbestosis requires thorough medical and occupational histories in addition to medical testing. Most patients diagnosed today were exposed to asbestos before the 1970s, when the U.S. began to restrict the use of the toxic mineral.
Despite asbestos abatement efforts throughout the country, the demolition or renovation of older buildings can put Americans at risk of asbestos exposure. Furthermore, 125 million people around the world are still regularly exposed to asbestos in the workplace, according to the World Health Organization’s estimate.
Asbestosis takes less time to develop than cancer, so an asbestosis diagnosis signals a high risk of developing mesothelioma in the future.
When scar tissue forms around the lungs’ microscopic air sacs, it gradually becomes harder for them to expand and fill with fresh air.
This can cause a series of symptoms, including:
The stiffening of the lungs causes the coughing, discomfort and crackling sound associated with asbestosis, and it also results in less oxygen being delivered to the blood, causing shortness of breath. Because the body relies on oxygen for energy, chronic breathing difficulties lead to fatigue and weight loss.
Pulmonary hypertension: The formation of scar tissue may also constrict arteries and cause high blood pressure in the lungs, or pulmonary hypertension. This is a different condition than systemic hypertension, but it still forces the heart to work harder, potentially leading to heart disease and heart failure.
Clubbed fingers and toes: When the lungs deliver insufficient oxygen to the blood, a symptom called “clubbing” may arise. The tips of the toes and fingers appear wider and rounder than normal. Fingernails and toenails may become deformed because of the lack of oxygen reaching the body’s extremities.
Patients can minimize symptoms of asbestosis by taking steps to improve their lifestyle:
Eat a well-balanced diet and stay hydrated.
Get adequate sleep every night and take short rests during the day.
Exercise regularly without overexerting yourself.
Prevent respiratory infections by getting flu and pneumonia vaccines, washing your hands and avoiding large crowds.
Avoid air pollution and tobacco smoke.
Asbestosis is an irreversible condition. With the exception of lung transplantation, all treatment options are palliative, meaning they address the symptoms of asbestosis to improve the patient’s quality of life.
Because the condition gets worse over time, patients require increased treatment as they age.
Supplemental oxygen from a portable oxygen tank is often necessary for patients with reduced lung capacity. The tank delivers extra oxygen to the lungs through a plastic tube with two prongs that fit into the patient’s nostrils.
Medications can thin lung secretions to make coughing easier and relieve chest pain. However, corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory medications) and immunosuppressants are ineffective for treating asbestosis.
Pulmonary rehabilitation helps patients learn techniques and make lifestyle changes to better cope with chronic breathing difficulties. A team of therapists works together to provide for both physical and psychological needs.
Lung transplants are most often considered when asbestosis is accompanied by more severe lung diseases such as emphysema or lung cancer. It is a highly invasive, last-resort treatment, and in order to be put on a lung-transplant waiting list, a patient has to undergo extensive screening to determine the relative chances of success.
Some patients also find relief through complementary and alternative medical treatments such as acupuncture, massage therapy and homeopathic medicine. While none of these treatments offers a cure for asbestosis, many of them do offer relief from pain and improved pulmonary function.
Karen Selby joined Asbestos.com in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.
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