Last modified: January 19, 2022
Asbestosis is a form of fibrosis that develops over a long period of time after exposure to asbestos fibers. Over time, scar tissue replaces normal lung tissue. An excessive amount of scar tissue can cause reduced pulmonary function.
During exposure, asbestos fibers are inhaled, and they can become lodged in lung tissue. The sharp, straight shape of the fibers makes them difficult for a body to dislodge and expel. Once in a body for a long period, the fibers cause irritation, inflammation and scarring, which cause symptoms that primarily affect the lungs.
In most asbestosis patients, symptoms develop within 20 to 30 years after being exposed to asbestos. If someone is exposed to asbestos for a long time, a decade or more, the latency period of symptom development is closer to 20 years.
Common Asbestosis Symptoms
The severity and frequency of asbestosis symptoms can vary at the time of diagnosis.
The most common symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Shortness of breath
- Crackling sound in the lungs when breathing
- Persistent, dry cough
- Difficulty swallowing
- Pain or tightness in the chest
- Blood in sputum
- Swelling in the neck or face
- Finger deformity
- Loss of weight/appetite
Many of these symptoms can also be associated with pleural mesothelioma, the most common type of mesothelioma. Other conditions that exhibit symptoms similar to asbestosis include lung cancer and pneumonia.
What Causes Symptoms?
Lung scarring, or fibrosis, is the direct cause of the coughing and shortness of breath symptoms most commonly associated with asbestosis.
As the lungs become scarred and inflamed over time, their ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide decreases, resulting in a reduction of lung function and subsequent fatigue in patients. In the later stages of asbestosis, the amount of stress placed on the lungs and heart from the lack of proper oxygen can lead to serious lung and/or heart failure.
Shortness of breath arises because of pleural thickening, the thickening of the lining of the lungs, caused by the longtime presence of asbestos fibers, or pleural effusion, the buildup of fluid between the chest wall and the lungs. Effusions can be caused by many conditions (pneumonia, lupus, congestive heart failure) and can stem from inflammation of the lungs. The thickening and effusions constrict movement of the lungs and eventually the heart. At that point, neither organ expands or contracts properly, which leads to shortness of breath and more fluid build up.
Asbestosis can set in motion a cycle of conditions. The disease prevents lungs from fully oxygenating blood, forcing the heart to work harder. As the heart works harder, blood pressure increases. As blood pressure increases, fluid builds up around the heart and lungs, which can lead to swelling in the neck and face, which in turn can lead to difficulty swallowing.
Fluid can also build up in the abdomen, creating bloating or tenderness, which can lead to a loss of appetite and potential weight loss. In advanced cases, fluid retention, if untreated, will lead to finger deformity known as clubbing.
Relieving Asbestosis Symptoms
Although there is no cure for asbestosis, doctors recommend several treatment options to relieve symptoms, and there are some changes to lifestyle and diet patients can undertake to feel better. Some medications are available to help with coughing and pain. Other treatments include the use of inhalers, supplemental oxygen and antibiotics.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is another option. Used in conjunction with medical treatments, pulmonary rehab is considered a long-term approach to helping patients, who are taught new breathing strategies, smarter exercise techniques and ways to manage stress. Pulmonary rehabilitation can also increase energy levels, strengthen exercise performance and improve overall survival and quality of life.
Because coughing and shortness of breath are the most common symptoms of asbestosis, palliative treatment often aims to reduce these symptoms The pleural effusion that causes many of the symptoms experienced by people with asbestosis can be treated by using two noninvasive surgeries, a thoracentesis and a pleurodesis.
In severe cases of asbestosis, a doctor may recommend a lung transplant. This surgery typically comes when the patient battles some other condition, such as lung cancer. The one-year survival rate for lung transplant patients is around 80%, but the aggressive surgery is often viewed as a last-resort treatment.
To help alleviate some symptoms, patients may alter their lifestyle by quitting smoking or reducing the amount of daily physical activity. Some adjustments in diet also can help, particularly early in the diagnostic process. Slippery elm bark, an herbal supplement, is a natural treatment for coughs and sore throats, and astragalus plays a prominent role in Chinese medicine for treating respiratory functions.
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