What Are the Signs of Asbestos Exposure?

Most people don’t experience any immediate reactions because of asbestos exposure. People may cough if they encounter a lot of asbestos dust, but exposure to the toxic mineral doesn’t cause any noticeable signs or symptoms during or soon after exposure. 

The first signs of asbestos exposure are the symptoms of related diseases. There are no signs of asbestos exposure that a person could identify before a disease develops.

Exposure to asbestos primarily happens through inhalation, which leads to respiratory conditions such as pleural mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Ingestion of asbestos is less common and may contribute to cases of peritoneal mesothelioma.  

Key Facts About Asbestos Exposure Symptoms
  • It often takes decades after initial asbestos contact for signs and symptoms to develop.
  • One of the first asbestos exposure symptoms to appear is a dry cough that won’t go away.
  • Signs of asbestos exposure typically indicate the development of an asbestos-related disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure Affecting the Lungs

Signs of asbestos exposure usually involve the lungs. That’s because exposure primarily occurs through inhalation rather than swallowing. Asbestos fibers don’t enter the body through the skin. As a result of these exposure pathways, more fibers damage the lungs.

Respiratory Asbestos Exposure Symptoms

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough or wheezing
  • Crackling sound when breathing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Coughing up blood
  • Frequent lung infections
  • Respiratory complications
  • Pleural effusion (accumulation of fluid in the space surrounding a lung)
  • Pleural plaques
  • Pleural thickening
  • Asbestosis

Asbestos exposure causes far more cases of mesothelioma that develop in the lung lining than cases that develop in the lining of the abdomen, heart or testes. Exposure also causes more noncancerous conditions that affect the respiratory system than other parts of the body.

My story begins when I went to my general practitioner’s office because of a cough and an unusual lack of energy. I thought maybe I was coming down with a case of pneumonia.

Signs of Asbestos Exposure Affecting Other Parts of the Body

While asbestos exposure causes more conditions that affect the respiratory system, some fibers travel through the bloodstream where they may damage other parts of the body. When asbestos causes disease in other parts of the body, the signs primarily affect the throat, stomach, colon or pelvic region.

Asbestos Exposure Symptoms Throughout the Body

  • Abdominal swelling and distention
  • Abdominal, back, groin or pelvic pain
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Clubbed fingers
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling full too quickly
  • Hernia
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle loss
  • Sensation of a lump in the throat
  • Testicular swelling
  • Weight loss

Symptoms affecting the stomach, colon, pelvis or groin may be a sign of ovarian cancer, peritoneal mesothelioma or testicular mesothelioma. When symptoms affect the throat, they may be a sign of laryngeal cancer, lung cancer or pleural mesothelioma.

Is There a Way to Test for Asbestos Exposure?

There is no test to detect asbestos exposure in people who wonder if they’ve encountered the mineral recently or in the past. No test can detect asbestos fibers in blood samples, and asbestos exposure doesn’t create unique biomarkers in the blood that can be tested for either. 

Diagnostic tests for asbestos-related diseases are the kinds of tests that show a person was exposed to asbestos. These tests can’t identify recent exposure to asbestos because it takes decades for asbestos-related diseases to develop. 

When a diagnostic test for asbestosis or mesothelioma is positive, it confirms that someone was exposed to asbestos because it’s the primary cause of these conditions. Mesothelioma doctors assume the patient was exposed to asbestos when an examination reveals an asbestos-related condition.

Screening for Asbestos-Related Diseases

If you have a history of heavy asbestos exposure, screening for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases could aid an early diagnosis. Tell your doctor if you have a history of asbestos exposure or have experienced symptoms of asbestos exposure and ask for recommended screenings.

There’s no single screening that can conclusively detect mesothelioma. A combination of tests may help doctors find potential problems before they start to cause symptoms.

Asbestos Exposure and Screening Tools

  • Bronchoalveolar lavage
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Chest X-ray
  • Low-dose CT scan
  • Pulmonary function tests
  • Spirometry

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends a chest X-ray and pulmonary function tests every 3 to 5 years for patients with noncancerous asbestos disease. These tests might catch cancerous changes in the chest but are not entirely reliable.

Researchers have worked on blood tests for mesothelioma. Others are developing tests for biomarkers of asbestos exposure. These tests aren’t accurate enough yet to detect signs of asbestos exposure or mesothelioma. Transvaginal ultrasound and a blood test for the CA-125 protein may be used as screening tools for ovarian cancer.

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Asbestos-Related Diseases, Cancers and Conditions 

Exposure to asbestos causes cancerous and noncancerous diseases. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has confirmed that asbestos causes at least four types of cancer including mesothelioma and lung cancer. Asbestosis is the most serious noncancerous condition. 

Occupational exposure is the No. 1 cause of asbestos-related disease. Secondary exposure can cause all these conditions too. Approximately 20% of people who work with asbestos develop a related disease. Some heavily exposed groups have reported even higher rates. About 50% of heavily exposed workers develop asbestosis.

The noncancerous conditions asbestos exposure causes primarily affect the lungs or the pleural lung lining. Noncancerous conditions can develop earlier than cancerous ones, and they may be the first sign of asbestos exposure.

Sean Marchese

Asbestos exposure can cause a wide range of diseases including chronic respiratory issues such as COPD and asbestosis. These conditions happen when the lining of the tissue of the lungs is damaged over a long period of time.

What Cancers Can Asbestos Exposure Cause?

Asbestos exposure causes at least four types of cancer including mesothelioma, laryngeal cancer, lung cancer and ovarian cancer. The latency period for symptoms of these malignant conditions to develop ranges from 20 to 60 years.

Asbestos-Related Cancers
  • Mesothelioma: Chest pain, shortness of breath and abdominal swelling are the first signs of mesothelioma.
  • Laryngeal cancer: Signs of laryngeal cancer include hoarseness and pain when swallowing.
  • Lung cancer: The common signs of lung cancer include a progressive cough and breathing issues.
  • Ovarian cancer: Commonly connected to contaminated talcum powder, bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain are the common symptoms.

The IARC also found an increased risk of other cancers but hasn’t proven a direct causal relationship. These include stomach cancer, pharyngeal cancer and colorectal cancer. 

According to decades of research, approximately 6% to 10% of heavily exposed asbestos workers develop mesothelioma. About 20% to 25% of these workers develop lung cancer.

Are There Noncancerous Asbestos-Related Diseases and Conditions?

Noncancerous asbestos-related illnesses include asbestosis, atelectasis and conditions that affect the pleura. Sometimes, noncancerous conditions develop before asbestos cancers. They’re not a reliable sign that cancer will develop, but they do indicate a high level of exposure associated with asbestos cancers.

Pleural thickening is a noncancerous condition associated with heavy asbestos exposure. It doesn’t run the risk of turning cancerous, but it may develop before some cases of mesothelioma.

Noncancerous Asbestos-Related Diseases and Conditions
  • Asbestosis: Asbestosis is a noncancerous progressive lung disease that leads to severe lung dysfunction including difficulty breathing. It doesn’t turn into cancer.
  • Atelectasis: A collapsed lung or lobe may cause breathing difficulties and chest pain.
  • Benign mesothelioma: Noncancerous tumors on the mesothelium that do not spread from origin.
  • Benign pleural effusion: This condition causes sharp chest pain and shortness of breath.
  • Pleural plaques: These lesions may lead to coughing and pain while breathing.
  • Pleural thickening: This condition may cause moderate to severe breathlessness and chest pains.
  • Pleuritis: Also known as pleurisy, this condition causes chest pain.

In some instances, a routine X-ray or CT scan may identify pleural plaques. Plaques are the most common sign of significant asbestos exposure. But pleural plaques aren’t a sign that any person can watch out for because they rarely cause symptoms. Plaques begin to develop 10 to 30 years after exposure.

An asbestosis diagnosis indicates a person had enough exposure to also be at risk of asbestos-related cancers. People with asbestosis are 7.4 times more likely to develop lung cancer. A Safety and Health at Work study found no clear trends between the incidence of asbestosis and mesothelioma. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that many asbestosis patients die of other causes. About 9% die of mesothelioma and 38% die of lung cancer.

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The Inspiring Spirit of Mesothelioma Survivor Carla Fasolo

Carla Fasolo’s cancer journey is one of hope and determination. In 2021, her doctors diagnosed her with pleural mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive asbestos-related cancer. Since then, she’s had to face one challenge after another. Fasolo’s courage is evident. She credits the unwavering support of her loved ones and the power of community. Now she’s sharing her strength with others.

Read Carla’s Story

Common Questions About Signs & Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure

How long can it take for disease relating to asbestos exposure to show up?

Symptoms of asbestos-related disease typically don’t appear until about 40 years after exposure. This asbestos latency period can make a mesothelioma diagnosis, for example, difficult since patients may not have symptoms until the disease is in its advanced stages.

What are the signs and symptoms of asbestos exposure?

There are no signs of asbestos exposure itself. There are signs of asbestos-related diseases that can develop years after exposure.

Signs of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases most commonly include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Fatigue or general weakness
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Dry cough
How much asbestos exposure is safe?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), no level of asbestos exposure is safe. Excess rates of cancers are found at all asbestos fiber concentrations. While this means that there is no evidence for a safe level of asbestos exposure, the risk is relative to the amount of exposure.

Who is at higher risk of developing health problems from asbestos exposure?

Most people who get sick worked heavily with asbestos for most of their careers. How long a person was exposed and the concentration of asbestos fibers they inhaled increases the risk of getting sick. The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure significantly increases the risk of lung cancer but not mesothelioma.

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