Asbestosis can occur as a result of inhaling tiny asbestos fibers. Asbestos is a natural mineral that occurs as bundles of fibers. Asbestos fibers do not evaporate into the air or dissolve in water.

This article will focus on where asbestos is found, how to live with asbestosis, how to treat the condition, and more.

A close up image of asbestos fibers, which can cause asbestosis.Share on Pinterest
Inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to severe health problems, including asbestosis.

Before people discovered that asbestos was harmful, building developers used it in all manner of ways. The American Lung Association (ALA) suggest that many homes built before 1977 may have asbestos in materials such as pipes, popcorn ceilings, and floor tiles.

Asbestos fibers are strong and resistant to heat, and they do not conduct electricity. For centuries, these properties led construction companies to use asbestos wherever they could. In the 1970s, it became apparent that asbestos could cause severe health problems, so companies promptly switched to using alternative materials.

One important thing that people should be aware of is that asbestos cannot cause harm if it is not in dust form. As long as a person does not inhale it, they are safe. So, if the asbestos in a person’s home remains undisturbed, they will be fine.

Asbestosis is a progressive disease, which means that it gets worse over time. Symptoms of asbestosis may not develop for up to 20 years after exposure, which delays any potential treatment.

It is possible to live for decades with the disease, but it affects everyone differently, so the outlook can vary. Some people can live a long time with asbestosis, but for others, it may progress at a faster rate.

In short, the life expectancy of people with asbestosis can vary greatly among individuals. Many factors influence a person’s life expectancy, including the severity of their symptoms and the timing of their treatment.

When asbestos fibers enter the lungs, they cause inflammation and, eventually, scarring. In addition, they are carcinogenic, which means that they cause cancer. Once the fibers are in the lungs, it is not possible to remove them.

At the moment, there is no cure for asbestosis, and the damage that it does to a person’s lungs is irreversible. By the time a doctor diagnoses a person with asbestosis, the fibers may have significantly damaged the lungs.

According to the ALA, a person can take certain steps to reduce their symptoms and improve their quality of life. These include:

  • Stopping smoking: Smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, but it can also make other symptoms of asbestosis worse.
  • Oxygen therapy: Inhaling oxygen-rich air from a machine or tank may improve breathlessness.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: Coupling this exercise program with healthcare advice can help with symptom management.
  • Vaccinations: The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommend regularly vaccinating against the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia.

A doctor can diagnose asbestosis using several tests and assessments. These include:

  • physical examination
  • medical history
  • simple breathing tests
  • job history (to assess the risk of asbestos exposure while working)

Learn more about the different breathing (pulmonary) tests here.

A doctor will perform a biopsy to detect asbestos fibers in pieces of lung tissue. However, they cannot use this procedure to determine how much asbestos is in the lungs or predict whether an asbestos-related disease could develop.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a chest X-ray could reveal early signs of asbestos-related lung disease, allowing the most appropriate treatment to begin at an earlier stage, before symptoms are fully presenting. It is worth noting that doctors mostly use chest X-rays to check for lung disease, as they cannot use them to detect asbestos fibers in the lungs.

The risk of a person developing asbestosis depends on several factors. These include:

  • the level of asbestos exposure
  • how frequently the exposure occurred
  • how long it has been since the exposure
  • if the person already has lung or breathing issues
  • if they worked in construction between the 1970s and 1990s

If a person currently works in an industry in which there is a high chance of encountering asbestos, such as shipyards and construction, there are now precautions in place to minimize the risk of exposure.

If a person has had exposure to asbestos, the ALA and NCI note that they should look out for the following symptoms:

  • shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness
  • a persistent cough that gets worse over time
  • blood in the sputum (fluid) that comes from the lungs when coughing
  • pain or tightening in the chest
  • difficulty swallowing
  • swelling of the neck or face
  • loss of appetite
  • unintentional weight loss
  • fatigue or anemia
  • clubbed (swollen) fingertips, in more advanced cases

People with asbestosis have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the membrane surrounding the lungs and chest cavity. It can also affect the lining of the abdomen. Often, people only receive a diagnosis when the disease is at an advanced stage.

Lung cancer is a malignant tumor that invades and blocks the lung’s air passages. According to the ALA, lung cancer is the most common type of cancer worldwide, and the survival rate within 1 year of diagnosis is less than 50%.

These conditions do not usually cause noticeable symptoms until they have spread throughout the body, which is why they are lethal.

A person should speak to a doctor as soon as possible if they are worried about their risk of asbestosis. The sooner a person sees a doctor, the earlier treatment can start.

The American Cancer Society state that asbestos exposure alone is enough to consider getting regular CT scans to screen for lung cancer. A person who has had this exposure may, therefore, wish to consider regular testing even if they have no symptoms.

When a person receives a diagnosis of asbestosis, the doctor will recommend a treatment management program, which can include pulmonary rehabilitation exercises and oxygen therapy.

These treatments aim to minimize further damage to the lungs. Some people with asbestosis may develop more serious conditions, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.

The use of asbestos is now highly regulated in the United States. Prevention is key to avoiding asbestosis, but most cases occur due to people being unaware of its dangers at the time of exposure.

People can hire an inspector who will test their home for asbestos. If the inspector discovers asbestos, they will recommend hiring a specialist to remove it from the home to avoid exposing the household to it.

Asbestosis is a lung disease that occurs due to the inhalation of asbestos fibers. The main symptoms of asbestosis are shortness of breath and a chronic cough, which result from the asbestos fibers scarring the lungs. The scarring prevents oxygen and carbon dioxide from exchanging effectively in the lungs, which makes breathing more difficult.

With the use of asbestos now highly regulated in the U.S., the number of cases of asbestosis should start to decline. However, as the symptoms take a long time to present, there are still many cases that remain undiagnosed.

Due to the nature of the disease, there is no treatment, and people with asbestosis can only manage their symptoms.