Although asbestosis is an irreversible condition, treatment options do exist to slow its progression and help someone with the disease live many years after a diagnosis. Medication and breathing treatments are the two most common treatments, and surgery may come into play as well. All of the treatment options are palliative, which means they are not potentially curative and are designed to improve a patient’s quality of life.
Treatments focus on a patient’s ability to breathe without distress. Caused by an inhalation of asbestos fibers, asbestosis is a lung disease that, over time, creates labored and painful breathing. Lung tissues that are scarred from embedded fibers impede the natural breathing process.
Doctors often prescribe inhalers and medications like bronchodilators, aspirin and antibiotics to help those diagnosed with asbestosis. In some patients, treatments such as a humidifier, oxygen therapy, chest percussion or postural drainage may also be recommended to relieve symptoms of chest congestion, tightness and difficulty breathing. If a patient’s symptoms are so severe that medications don’t work, a doctor may recommend surgery to remove scar tissue.
Patients with asbestosis should avoid smoking, as numerous medical studies show that smoking tobacco accelerates and worsens asbestosis.
Doctors may recommend a number of medications to help with breathing and the discomfort that comes with asbestosis. Common medications include over-the-counter cough drops and cough syrups. Those can be supplanted, if needed, with prescription-strength products.
Common medications for asbestosis treatment include:
Bronchodilators (inhalers): Typically prescribed for patients with asthma, inhalers help relax the airway muscles and may provide relief. Some of the most common brands prescribed include Maxair, Ventolin, Serevent, Proventil, Primatene, Accu-Hale and Xopenex.
Medications to thin secretions: There are a number of medications that can thin secretions and open up airways. One is Gauifenesin, which makes it easier to cough. Staying well hydrated by drinking water is still the most effective intervention to accomplish this.
Supplemental oxygen: To help with breathing and getting more air into the lungs, oxygen may be prescribed. Oxygen is transferred from a tank through a plastic tube that has two prongs that fit into your nostrils.
Antibiotics: If surgery is performed for asbestosis, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat or reduce the risk of infection.
Pain medications: Aspirin and Tylenol can be effective in reducing pain and inflammation caused by asbestosis. A doctor may prescribe stronger pain medication if these do not provide relief from chest pain and other symptoms.
Corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory medication) and immunosuppressants, which are typically prescribed when treating lung diseases, are largely ineffective in the treatment of asbestosis symptoms. Asbestosis is a disease which is more about the scarring, rather than the inflammation that it produces. Corticosteroids and immunosuppressants reduce inflammation.
In certain circumstances, surgery may be recommended for asbestosis. In rare cases, a doctor may recommend a lung transplant.
The goal of asbestosis surgeries is to relieve symptoms and provide pain relief. One likely surgical procedure is a thoracentesis, which drains excess fluid from the lungs, releasing the pressure in the lungs and making it easier to breathe. (Pleural effusion, which refers to excess fluid in the lungs, is a common symptom of asbestosis.)
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Doctors typically diagnose asbestosis with X-rays and CT scans, but there are times when a doctor may order a biopsy to rule out mesothelioma or another lung tumor. This is likely to happen when a patient’s X-ray shows a lesion or nodule that may be cancerous. If the doctor is not able to determine whether the lesion is cancerous from the films alone, they may choose to perform a biopsy to obtain a sample of the tumor for testing.
Pathologists get tissue samples several different ways, including:
Doctors may also perform a biopsy in patients with asbestosis who have a higher risk of also developing lung cancer or mesothelioma.
While thoracentesis can help a doctor diagnose the presence of lung cancer or mesothelioma, the procedure may also have a palliative use in the treatment of asbestosis. Sometimes asbestosis can cause or be accompanied by pleural effusion (the collection of fluid between the chest wall and the lungs). This excess fluid compresses the lungs and makes it difficult and painful to breathe. Removing the fluid can relieve chest pain and allow the lungs to work more efficiently.
Thoracentesis is usually an outpatient treatment and is the most common and least invasive way of withdrawing this buildup of fluid.
In the most severe cases, a doctor may decide that a lung transplant is warranted. Lung transplantation is the removal of one or both lungs that are then replaced with a lung harvested from a deceased donor.
Lung transplants are most often considered when the asbestosis is accompanied by more severe lung diseases such as emphysema or lung cancer. The transplant process is a long and involved one that may make it unsuitable for many asbestosis patients. In order to be considered for a lung transplant, a patient will have to undergo extensive tests and screening to determine the relative chances of a successful transplant. It is a last-resort treatment.
Some patients also find relief through 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, reduction of inflammation, and an increase in pulmonary function.
The most common alternative treatments for asbestosis are:
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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