What Is Asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a severe lung condition that develops because of asbestos exposure and involves progressive scarring of lung tissue. Exposure to construction sites, ships, and industrial facilities has caused many asbestosis cases.

Asbestosis is one of many interstitial lung diseases that cause inflammation and lung scarring. Inhaled asbestos fibers can cause scar tissue, known as pulmonary fibrosis, to form within the lungs.

Quick Facts About Asbestosis
  • Incurable lung disease that makes breathing progressively more difficult
  • Usually because of years of occupational asbestos exposure
  • A contributing cause of death for approximately 600 to more than 1,000 Americans each year
  • Signifies an elevated risk of developing asbestos-related cancer

When dust from sources such as asbestos causes this type of disease, it’s called occupational lung disease or pneumoconiosis. There is no cure for asbestosis, but treatment can alleviate symptoms and slow disease progression.

Asbestosis is not a cancerous disease. However, it indicates a patient experienced enough exposure to be at risk of developing cancer. These include asbestos-related lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma. There is a higher chance of developing lung cancer after an asbestosis diagnosis than malignant mesothelioma.

Asbestosis Symptoms

When scar tissue forms around the lungs’ microscopic air sacs, known as alveoli, it gradually becomes more challenging for them to expand and fill with fresh air. The first symptoms of asbestosis include a dry cough, difficulty breathing and crackling sounds when breathing.

Common Asbestosis Symptoms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Chest tightness and pain
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of weight and appetite
  • Crackling sounds when breathing
  • Clubbing of fingers and toes

Scarring causes lung tissue to stiffen, leading to coughing, discomfort and crackling sounds associated with asbestosis. It also results in less oxygen in the blood, causing shortness of breath. Chronic breathing difficulties and reduced oxygen lead to fatigue and weight loss.

Asbestosis symptoms can be similar to many illnesses or diagnoses, so your physician may not immediately consider it. Because of this, it will be important to discuss your asbestos exposure history. This will help your physician in ordering appropriate testing quickly.

Advanced Asbestosis Symptoms

Advanced symptoms include pulmonary hypertension and clubbed fingers and toes. The formation of scar tissue can constrict arteries and cause pulmonary hypertension. Blood pressure increases when it’s harder for the body to pump blood out of the heart and into the lungs. 

When the lungs deliver insufficient oxygen to the blood, a symptom called “clubbing” may arise. The tips of the toes and fingers appear broader and rounder than usual. This symptom may occur early in disease progression for some patients.

Asbestosis takes less time to develop than asbestos-related cancer. An asbestosis diagnosis signals a risk of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma in the future.

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Asbestosis Causes

The only cause of asbestosis is asbestos exposure. Different types of dust can cause other types of pneumoconiosis. For example, silicosis is a form of pneumoconiosis due to exposure to silica dust. 

Inhalation of asbestos fibers leads to a buildup of the fibers in lung tissue. Over time, asbestos fibers accumulate and cause inflammation and fibrous changes to lung tissue. This process leads to scarring and restrictive tissue movement. The interstitium, alveoli air sacs and surrounding tissue become inflamed and fibrotic.

Asbestosis developing in the lungs
Asbestos fibers in lung tissue cause inflammation and scarring that leads to asbestosis.

An asbestos-related illness usually develops after years of regular exposure. The latency period from exposure to symptoms and diagnosis can be decades. Asbestosis has a shorter latency period of 20 to 30 years compared to asbestos-related cancers, which average 20 to 50 years. 

Asbestosis Risk Factors

People who experience occupational asbestos exposure are at higher risk of asbestosis. Asbestosis tends to develop in people exposed to large amounts of asbestos over long periods.

Risk factors that affect asbestosis development include:

  • Amount and concentration of asbestos
  • Size, shape and type of asbestos fibers
  • Length of time of the exposure to asbestos
  • Health factors such as smoking or a history of lung disease
  • Genetic factors or specific mutations in DNA that increase risk of disease

Certain workers were most likely to experience heavy exposure. They include construction workers,  insulators who installed spray-on asbestos insulation, asbestos miners and millers. Other high-risk workers include pipefitters, mechanics, boiler workers, textile mill workers, industrial workers and shipyard workers, according to a 2021 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

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Diagnosing Asbestosis

Diagnosing asbestosis requires thorough medical and occupational histories in addition to medical testing. Doctors use imaging scans, lung function tests and medical and occupational histories to diagnose asbestosis

Patients typically go to the doctor with breathing problems and undergo an X-ray or CT scan in addition to lung function tests. Radiologists often diagnose this condition because imaging scans reveal the signs of the disease. Doctors consider an asbestosis diagnosis when imaging results and asbestos exposure history align.

The grinding machine kicked the [nonskid paint] dust back up in our faces. We didn’t know at that time that it was silica [with] aluminum, nickel, asbestos and other minerals in the dust that was being kicked up. Basically, the ship was a killing field.

Another diagnostic procedure is a biopsy through bronchoscopy. It involves inserting a scope down the throat and windpipe and into the airways of the lungs. A biopsy is generally not necessary when imaging reveals signs of asbestosis in patients with heavy asbestos exposure. Discovering asbestos fibers in sputum or biopsies can also contribute to an asbestosis diagnosis. However, that alone is not enough to diagnose the condition.

Prognosis for Asbestosis

The median survival for all patients diagnosed with asbestosis is approximately 10 years. Life expectancy with asbestosis correlates to disease progression. This correlation means survival time is longest for stage 1 patients and shortest for stage 3 patients. Those diagnosed in stage 1 live about 14 years compared to stage 3 patients, who live an average of 1.75 years.

Life Expectancy for Asbestosis Patients
Asbestosis Stage Survival in Months (Years)
Stage 1 171 months (14.25 years)
Stage 2 50 months (4.16 years)
Stage 3 21 months (1.75 years)
All Stages Combined 124 months (10.3 years)

The outlook for patients with asbestosis depends on how quickly the condition progresses. How much asbestos exposure they experienced influences this timeline. Those who endured a high level of exposure will typically have more severe disease that may progress to a later stage quickly. Patients with a lower level of exposure may develop a mild case that progresses slowly or not at all.

Only a lung transplant for asbestosis can stop the disease. There is no other cure or way to reverse the scarring caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestosis is the most frequently reported cause of pneumoconiosis deaths. It accounts for about 60% of pneumoconiosis deaths recorded from 1999 to 2018.

Can You Live With Asbestosis?

Yes, you can live with asbestosis for years, but there is no cure for this progressive condition. Patients live an average of 10 years with asbestosis.

Lung transplantation is the best long-term treatment for asbestosis, but few patients qualify for this invasive procedure. Other treatments help to control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

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Asbestosis Treatment Options

Asbestosis is an irreversible condition. Except for lung transplantation, all asbestosis treatment options are palliative, meaning they address the symptoms of asbestosis to improve the patient’s quality of life.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor
  • How advanced is my condition?
  • What is the best treatment for asbestosis?
  • What medications do you recommend, and what are the side effects?
  • How much experience do you have managing asbestosis?
  • Will I need a lung transplant?
  • Am I at risk of developing mesothelioma or lung cancer?
  • Is anyone in my family at risk?

Treatments include supplemental oxygen, medications and pulmonary rehabilitation. Supplemental oxygen from a portable oxygen tank is often necessary for patients with reduced lung capacity. Medications can thin lung secretions to make coughing easier and relieve chest pain. 

Pulmonary rehabilitation helps patients learn techniques and make lifestyle changes that help them better cope with chronic breathing difficulties. A team of therapists works together to provide for physical and psychological needs. Exercise therapy helps patients with physical fitness and lung function and also improves the quality of life.

Top Pulmonologists Treating Asbestosis

Because the condition worsens with time, patients require increased treatment as they age. Working with a doctor specializing in asbestosis treatment is essential in controlling disease progression and symptoms.

Dr. Francis D. Sheski, Thoracic Oncologist

Indianapolis, Indiana

Francis D. Sheski

Pleural Specialist | Pulmonary Critical Care

Expertise: Interventional Pulmonology Clinical Trials

Languages: English

Dr. Mark W. Lischner, Pulmonary Specialist

Roseville, California

Mark W. Lischner

Pleural Specialist | Pulmonology

Expertise: Critical Care Thoracic Cancers

Languages: English

Dr. Alice Boylan - Professor of Medicine

Charleston, South Carolina

Alice Boylan

Pleural Specialist | Pulmonary Medicine

Expertise: Research Thoracic Malignancies

Languages: English

Lung transplants are most effective when asbestosis is severe, or patients also have other lung diseases, such as emphysema. This procedure is a highly invasive, last-resort treatment.

Some patients also find relief through complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and nutritional medicine. Lifestyle changes may improve how you feel with asbestosis. For example, quitting smoking will slow the progression of the disease. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep will help your body cope with the effects of asbestosis, including reduced oxygen intake.

Common Questions About Asbestosis

How long can you live with asbestosis?

Unlike mesothelioma, asbestosis is considered a chronic disease. Patients with an asbestosis diagnosis often live for several decades. However, the disease can be deadly, and many asbestosis patients suffer from severe respiratory issues.

What is the difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is cancer that forms in the mesothelial tissue surrounding the lungs, chest cavity and abdomen. Asbestosis is not cancer but a chronic respiratory disease and a type of pulmonary fibrosis. Asbestosis and mesothelioma have the same cause as other asbestos-related diseases.

Can asbestosis be cured?

There is no cure for asbestosis. Asbestosis treatment options focus on reducing symptoms and improving breathing ability.

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