Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that are made up of bundles of tiny fibers composed of hydrated magnesium silicates. Asbestos has been widely used in building and manufacturing industries because heat and chemicals do not affect it.
Thickening and Fibrosis of Lung Tissue
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Breathing in asbestos fibers can cause the lung condition asbestosis. Usually, when particles in the air are breathed in, the nose or the upper airways of the lungs filter them out. But asbestos particles are very thin and light so our bodies sometimes fail to filter them out before they reach the lungs. Trapped in tiny airways, the particles cause scarring, called fibrosis, to the lung tissue.
After years of exposure, asbestos can damage lung tissue and cause several serious diseases, including mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by inhaling asbestos particles. Scarring also decreases the ability of the lungs to do their work of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Who is at Risk for Asbestosis?
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:
- 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 nonproductive (which means no mucus is produced)
- Chest pain or tightness
- Feeling generally unwell
- Loss of appetite
- Finger clubbing, in some cases, caused by a build-up of fluid
- Weight loss
How We Diagnose Asbestosis
The diagnosis is made based on:
- Reliable history of exposure to asbestos
- Evidence of lung scarring and fibrosis which is based on a physical exam and/or X-ray
- Absence of other causes that may produce similar clinical pictures
Tests used in diagnosis of asbestosis:
- Chest X-ray—changes seen on the exam usually have a distinctive pattern
- CT scan —will detect changes more easily
- Pulmonary function test—measures how well the lungs take in and exhale air, showing if the lungs have reduced function
- Oximetry—a noninvasive means to assess oxygen status
No treatment to cure asbestosis exists. You can improve your health by:
- Avoiding further exposure to asbestos
- Stop smoking—people who have asbestosis and smoke cigarettes greatly increase their risk of developing lung cancer
- 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
- Having oxygen therapy and other respiratory therapies that can make breathing easier
- Improving your nutrition
- Practice breathing and physical exercises
- Using home oxygen, if necessary
Avoiding Asbestos and Asbestosis
Since the 1970s, asbestos use and handling has been increasingly controlled by the government. Asbestosis can be prevented by:
- Controlling asbestos dust and fibers in the workplace
- If you handle asbestos at work, showering and changing clothes before you leave work
- Seeking help from professionals trained in asbestos removal if you need it removed from your house
- Quitting smoking, which increases the attack and/or progression rate of asbestosis
Schedule an appointment to get a diagnosis.
Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.