Written by Karen Selby, RN | Scientifically Reviewed By Arti Shukla, Ph.D. | Edited By Walter Pacheco | Last Update: June 21, 2024

How Is Asbestosis Treated?

older man using asthma inhaler
Doctors prescribe inhalers to help relieve the symptoms of asbestosis.

Treatments for asbestosis focus on providing relief from pain, easing breathing and slowing the progression of the disease. The first step is to stop any ongoing exposure. Patient care involves taking an extensive medical history, discussing exposure and undergoing a physical examination and testing to look for signs of disease and determine the severity. 

Asbestosis patients should quit smoking, as this can make the condition worse. Doctors should provide routine vaccines for influenza and pneumonia and treat any chest infections. Attending regular doctor appointments is important for patients to report new symptoms such as weight loss or coughing up blood. Their health care provider can monitor their current condition to advise them on proper treatment for any changing medical needs. 

Doctors often prescribe inhalers and medications, including bronchodilators, aspirin and antibiotics, to help those diagnosed with asbestosis manage their symptoms. Patients with hypoxemia should have supplemental oxygen therapy. Some patients benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation or using a humidifier. 

Chest percussion and postural drainage, also known as chest physical therapy, is another treatment to remove fluid from the lungs using percussion (clapping) and vibration to loosen and clear mucus from airways. Patients who don’t benefit from medications and noninvasive therapies may undergo surgery to lessen the severity of symptoms. 

Asbestosis Medications

Several types of medications can ease the symptoms of asbestosis, making it more comfortable to breathe. Some patients can use over-the-counter cough drops and cough syrups. Those with more severe asbestosis symptoms may take prescription-strength medications.

Medications That Treat Asbestosis
  • Antibiotics: Doctors generally prescribe an antibiotic to reduce the risk of infections from surgery.
  • Antifibrotics: Pirfenidone, a medication for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, shows promise as a treatment to slow the progression of asbestosis.
  • Inhalers (Bronchodilators): Inhalers relax the muscles in the airways. Common brands prescribed for asbestosis treatment include Accu-Hale, Maxair, Primatene, Proventil, Serevent, Ventolin and Xopenex.
  • Medications to thin secretions: Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water is the most effective way to thin secretions and keep the airways clear; however, medications like guaifenesin can also help.
  • Pain medications: Over-the-counter or prescription pain medications reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Supplemental oxygen: Oxygen is another effective treatment for asbestosis. Breathing from an oxygen tank gets more air into the lungs.

Despite their success in treating other lung diseases, immunosuppressants and anti-inflammatory medications such as corticosteroids are ineffective for treating asbestosis. These drugs treat inflammation, but asbestosis symptoms stem from the scarring of the lungs.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation for Asbestosis

Pulmonary rehabilitation, a program that focuses on improving breathing and overall quality of life, is often recommended as an asbestosis exposure treatment. This treatment method focuses on more than breathing exercises. It also works to manage symptoms of anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders common in those with serious illnesses. 

Components of Pulmonary Rehabilitation
  • Breathing techniques: Part of every program is a series of breathing exercises such as yoga breathing or pursed lip breathing. These techniques help patients to control their breathing, even in times of stress.
  • Counseling: Professional counseling helps patients manage mood disorders and emotional problems caused by long-term disease. Individual and group therapy are beneficial.
  • Education: Providers explain lung function, teach patients to recognize flare-up signs, provide smoking cessation support and give guidance on how to manage their condition in their daily lives.
  • Exercise: Physical exercise, including walking or cycling, builds muscle to increase stamina and endurance and makes it easier to perform daily tasks. It can even strengthen the muscles involved in breathing.
  • Medications: A doctor may prescribe medication that helps to open a patient’s airways.
  • Nutrition: Counseling with a dietitian helps patients learn which foods to eat to get the nutrients they need to stay healthy. A good meal plan can also assist in maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Oxygen therapy: Some patients may receive supplemental oxygen during their program.

Each patient works with a health care team to design a program unique to their needs. The exercises have few risks when performed correctly and under the care of a doctor. Breathing tests and a stress test to measure markers such as heart rate, oxygen level and blood pressure help determine the best exercises to include in a patient’s program. 

Patients can complete their pulmonary rehabilitation program in a medical facility under the supervision of a health care team. Alternatively, they may learn the exercises and complete them at home. Program length varies but generally consists of 2 or 3 sessions per week for several months. 

Surgery for Asbestosis

The goal of asbestosis surgeries is to relieve symptoms and provide pain relief. One likely surgical procedure is a thoracentesis, which drains excess fluid (pleural effusion) from the lungs, releasing the pressure in the lungs and making it easier to breathe.

A doctor will usually recommend surgery if the pleural effusion returns even after performing less invasive procedures to drain it. Other possible surgeries are pleurodesis, which prevents fluid buildup by sealing the pleura layers together. A pleurectomy removes a part of the pleura. 

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Diagnostic Surgery

If an X-ray or CT scans show a lesion or nodule in the lung, the patient may require a biopsy to rule out mesothelioma or another lung tumor. The biopsy provides a sample to get more definitive results before making an asbestosis treatment plan.

Surgeries to Collect Tissue
  • Bronchoscopy: A doctor inserts a light and camera through a thin tube passed through the patient’s nose or mouth and down into the lungs. The doctor can then look for signs of abnormalities or take a sample of tissue or fluid.
  • Mediastinoscopy: This procedure involves obtaining a tissue sample from along the windpipe by making an incision in the neck.
  • Needle aspiration: The doctor inserts a hollow needle through the chest into the tumor to remove a sample of the tissue.
  • Thoracentesis: The doctor inserts a hollow needle into the space between the chest wall and the lungs to obtain a sample of fluid.

Doctors may also perform a biopsy on asbestosis patients if they have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma or lung cancer. Other diagnostic tools include pulmonary function tests and lab work. 

Thoracentesis as a Palliative Treatment

In addition to diagnosis, thoracentesis is an effective palliative treatment in patients who develop pleural effusion. This is when fluid collects between the chest wall and the lungs. The excess fluid compresses the lungs, making breathing painful and difficult. Patients often experience a persistent cough. 

Performing a thoracentesis to remove this fluid helps relieve pain and allows the lungs to work more efficiently. A thoracentesis is minimally invasive and usually well tolerated by most patients. It’s performed as an outpatient treatment. The procedure also goes by the name of pleural tap, pleural fluid aspiration, pleurocentesis and thoracocentesis. 

Lung Transplant

A doctor may recommend a lung transplant of one or both lungs for the most severe cases of asbestosis. Lung transplants are a last resort treatment. Cases that warrant a transplant typically involve patients with disease co-occurrences such as lung cancer or emphysema along with asbestosis. 

The lung transplant process is not suited for all asbestosis patients. The process is long and requires the patient to first undergo screening and extensive tests to determine the chances of a successful transplant. 

Alternative Treatments for Asbestosis

Alternative treatments don’t provide a cure for asbestosis, but they can offer relief from pain and other symptoms. Many people include these therapies as a part of their care plans to manage the uncomfortable side effects of traditional treatments and improve their overall well-being. 

Common Alternative Asbestosis Treatments
  • Acupuncture
  • Herbal medicine
  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation
  • Nutrition

Patients need to discuss every alternative treatment option they wish to try with their doctor. Alternative therapies may provide some relief, but they can’t replace standard therapies. A doctor can recommend methods to try and ensure the patient’s chosen complementary therapies won’t interfere with other treatments. 

Common Questions About Asbestosis Treatment

What is the best treatment for asbestosis?

Treatment of asbestosis depends on the patient’s symptoms, severity of the disease and overall health. A doctor will recommend treatment options after completing tests and making a diagnosis. Common treatments include pain-relieving medications, inhalers, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation or surgery. A lung transplant is sometimes recommended as a last resort for severe cases.

What is the life expectancy of someone with asbestosis?

The life expectancy of an asbestosis patient is, on average, 10 years after diagnosis. How long a patient lives ultimately depends on the severity of their disease and its progression. Survival for stage 1 patients is about 14.25 years; stage 2 is 4.16 years; and stage 3 is 1.75 years. Those who experienced high asbestos exposure levels typically progress more quickly into later disease stages, while those with lesser exposure may have a slow progression.

Is there a cure for asbestosis?

There is no cure for asbestosis. Once the damage to the lungs occurs, it is not reversible. However, there are various treatments to help ease symptoms and slow the disease’s progression.

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