Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that are made up of bundles of tiny fibers composed of hydrated magnesium silicates. It is mined from the ground. Asbestos has been widely used in building and manufacturing industries because it is not affected by heat or chemicals.
Asbestosis is a lung condition caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. Usually, when particles in the air are breathed in, they are filtered out by the nose or the upper airways of the lungs. But asbestos particles are very thin and light, and sometimes are not filtered out before they reach the lungs. After years of exposure, asbestos can damage lung tissue and is responsible for causing several serious diseases, including cancer. Mesothelioma is a specific type of cancer that is caused by inhaling asbestos particles.
Asbestosis is caused when the fibers are inhaled deep into the lungs. Here, they are trapped in tiny airways where they cause scarring, called fibrosis, to the lung tissue. Repeated or continuous exposure over a long time can cause scarring over large areas of the lungs. When this happens, lungs lose their elasticity. When lungs can’t expand and contract normally, a person will experience shortness of breath. Scarring also decreases the ability of the lungs to do their work of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Thickening and Fibrosis of Lung Tissue
Asbestosis primarily affects people who are regularly exposed to asbestos. The more a person is exposed, the greater the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. However, most people who have had prolonged exposure to asbestos do not develop asbestosis. Those at highest risk are:
People who handle asbestos material at their workplace:
- Workers who mine or process asbestos
- Construction workers
- Shipyard workers
- Vehicle mechanics
- Family members of people who work with asbestos and bring the fibers home on their hair or clothing
- People who work at sites where asbestos is found
Asbestosis takes a long time to develop. The earliest symptoms usually show up 10-40 years after first exposure. The disease can develop even when exposure to asbestos ended years before. The severity of the disease depends on the amount and length of time of exposure to asbestos. Symptoms get worse as the disease progresses and may include:
- Shortness of breath—this is the first noticeable symptom and occurs with exercise or heavy effort
- Cough—the cough is persistent and does not produce mucus
Other symptoms may include:
- Chest pain or tightness
- Feeling generally unwell
- Loss of appetite
- Finger clubbing, in some cases, caused by a build-up of fluid
- Weight loss
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. You will be asked about your history of exposure to asbestos. A physical exam will be done.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This may be done with:
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
- A lung biopsy
- Sputum cultures
- Oximetry to assess oxygen status
A pulmonary function test may also be done to measure how well the lungs take in and exhale air.
There is no treatment to cure asbestosis. The disease slowly worsens. The first and most important changes a person can make are the following:
- Prevent further exposure to asbestos
- Stop smoking—people who have asbestosis and smoke cigarettes greatly increase their risk of developing lung cancer.
After the condition is diagnosed, treatment involves staying healthy and treating the symptoms. These measures include:
- Getting immediate treatment for colds and other respiratory infections
- Staying updated with vaccinations, especially for flu and pneumococcus
- Avoiding crowds, where infections might be spread
- Having regular chest x-rays or CT scans to watch for signs of cancers associated with asbestos, especially mesothelioma
- Having oxygen therapy and other respiratory therapies that can make breathing easier
- Improving the nutritional state
- Encouraging breathing and physical exercises
- Home oxygen, if necessary
- Treating any complications, such as pulmonary artery hypertension or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Since the 1970s, asbestos use and handling has been increasingly controlled by the government. Asbestosis can be prevented by controlling the asbestos dust and fibers in the workplace. In addition, people who handle asbestos at work must shower and change their clothes before leaving work. As a result of these measures, fewer people develop the disease.
People who need to have asbestos removed from their house should seek help from professionals trained in asbestos removal.
It is also important to note that smoking increases the attack and/or progression rate of asbestosis.
American Cancer Society
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
The Lung Association
American Thoracic Society. Diagnosis and initial management of nonmalignant diseases related to asbestos. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2004;170(6):691-715.
Asbestos exposure and cancer risk. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet. Updated May 1, 2009. Accessed May 4, 2016.
Asbestos: Health effects of exposure to asbestos. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos/asbestos/health_effects. Updated April 1, 2008. Accessed May 4, 2016.
Asbestos-related benign pulmonary disease. DynaMed Available at: http: Updated March 22, 2013. Accessed May 4, 2016.
Becklake MR, et al. Asbestos-related diseases of the lungs and pleura: Uses, trends and management over the last century. Int J Tuberc Lung Dis 2007;11(4):356-69.
O’Reilly KM, Mclaughlin AM, et al. Asbestos-related lung disease. Am Fam Physician. 2007;75(5):683-638.
Sette A, Neder JA, et al. Thin-section CT abnormalities and pulmonary gas exchange impairment in workers exposed to asbestos. Radiology. 2004;232(1):66-74.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.