Last modified: July 20, 2021
What Is Asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease characterized by scarring in the lungs caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.
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.
Quick Facts About Asbestosis
- 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
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 lung cancer or mesothelioma in the future.
Causes and Risk Factors of Asbestosis
Asbestosis is caused only by exposure to asbestos. Inhaling asbestos causes microscopic fibers to become lodged within lung tissue, leading to damage and scarring.
The damage caused by asbestos is due to inflammation of the tissue in the lungs. Inflammation occurs when your body senses a foreign invader and sends macrophages, a type of white blood cell, and other immune cells to stimulate and boost the immune system.
The scar tissue that forms as a result of the inflammation can occur around the lung’s air sacs, or alveoli, making it more difficult for your body to receive oxygen. Asbestosis can also affect fibroblast cells, which produce the extracellular matrix and collagen responsible for the integrity of your lungs.
Workers in the construction, railroad, automotive and shipbuilding industries are more likely to be at risk for asbestosis.
Another group of at-risk workers includes drywall removers, firefighters, demolition workers and others who assisted at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. These workers were exposed to asbestos used in the construction of the north tower.
Asbestos exposure can develop into asbestosis based on the following factors:
- Amount and concentration of asbestos
- Size, shape and chemical makeup of the asbestos
- Length of time an individual was exposed 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
Symptoms of Asbestosis
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:
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent dry cough
- Chest tightness and pain
- Loss of weight and appetite
- Crackling sound when breathing
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 make it harder to pump blood out of the heart and into the lungs without increasing the pressure required to perform the action. This is called pulmonary hypertension, which is a different condition from the more commonly occurring “high blood pressure” or systemic hypertension. Pulmonary hypertension is dangerous because it forces the heart to work harder, potentially leading to earlier problems with coronary artery disease and congestive 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.
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.
If signs of scarring appear on image scan results, and the patient has a history of significant asbestos exposure, doctors will consider an asbestosis diagnosis. It is generally challenging to diagnose the disease because there is no simple, quick test for asbestosis, but a combination of tests and a history of occupational asbestos exposure is the current diagnostic standard.
Asbestosis is an irreversible condition. With the exception of lung transplantation, all asbestosis 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
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
Pulmonary rehabilitation helps patients learn techniques and make lifestyle changes to better cope with chronic breathing difficulties. A team of therapists work together to provide for both physical and psychological needs.
- Lung Transplants
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.
Prognosis for Asbestosis
The outlook for patients with asbestosis depends on how much asbestos they were exposed to. Those who endured a high level of exposure will have more severe disease that may progress quickly. Patients with a lower level of exposure may develop a mild case that progresses slowly or not at all.
Unfortunately, aside from a lung transplant for asbestosis, there is no way to cure or reverse the scarring caused by asbestos exposure.
Asbestosis vs. Mesothelioma
Asbestosis is considered a type of pulmonary fibrosis due to the scarring of lung tissue over time. Asbestosis is not a cancerous disease, but it does indicate a high risk of later developing asbestos-related lung cancer.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer and is characterized by the formation of one or more tumors in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.
Both conditions are caused by years of occupational asbestos exposure and can affect the parenchymal tissue of the lungs. This delicate tissue is responsible for oxygenating red blood cells.
Asbestosis and mesothelioma can take decades to recognize and diagnose, as the damage is not evident until long after asbestos exposure. Symptoms are similar in both conditions. However, a mesothelioma diagnosis requires a biopsy, where an asbestosis diagnosis is determined by imaging scans, asbestos exposure history and medical history.
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 are the symptoms of asbestosis?
Asbestosis symptoms commonly include:
- High blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Weight loss
- 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.
- What causes asbestosis?
Asbestosis is caused by years of chronic inflammation and tissue scarring as a result of asbestos fibers lodged in the lungs. The only cause of asbestosis is asbestos exposure. The amount, concentration and type of asbestos all contribute to the risk of developing asbestosis.
- Can asbestosis be cured?
There is no cure for asbestosis due to its similarity to pulmonary fibrosis and other chronic respiratory illnesses. Asbestosis treatment options focus on reducing symptoms and improving breathing ability.
Thank you for your feedback. Would you like to speak with a Patient Advocate?