Last Updated 05/06/2020
Authors:Mary Cataletto, MD, FCCP; Sheetal Gandotra, MD; Yuh-Chin Huang, MD, FCCP
- Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. It is used as an insulation material. Exposure to asbestos can occur in certain jobs, such as construction and shipyards.
- Breathing in large amounts of asbestos fibers or dust over a long period can scar lung tissues. This scarring is called asbestosis.
- There is no treatment for asbestosis. To prevent the disease, wear proper protective masks in the workplace.
Asbestosis is a long-term, or chronic, lung condition caused by extended exposure to air that has large amounts of asbestos fibers.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral often used as an insulation material. Exposure to asbestos can happen in several jobs. Breathing in large amounts of asbestos fibers or dust over a long period can cause damage and scar tissue in the lungs. This makes it difficult to breathe. This condition is called asbestosis.
How Asbestosis affects your body
Inhaled asbestos fibers and dust get trapped in your lungs. The lungs try unsuccessfully to remove the asbestos through the immune system. This leads to damage and scar tissue. Asbestosis usually develops slowly. You may not have symptoms or notice it until 20 years after you were exposed.
Other health problems are also related to asbestos exposure, including:
- Thickening and hardening of the lining of the lung;
- Fluid around the lung; and
- Malignant mesothelioma, a cancer surrounding the lung
People who smoke and have asbestos exposure are at high risk of developing lung cancer.
How severe your asbestosis is depends on:
- How long you were exposed to asbestos; and
- The amount of asbestos you inhaled.
Sometimes, symptoms are mild, and you can be diagnosed with a chest X-ray. However, breathing may be more difficult over time. You may eventually need oxygen to help you breathe.
The disease can lead to failure of the heart and lungs. In rare cases, it can lead to death.
You don’t get asbestosis from:
- Exposure to asbestos that is not in a dust form; or
- Exposure in buildings where asbestos insulation is not exposed to the air.
Symptoms of Asbestosis
The following are symptoms of asbestosis:
- Shortness of breath, which may begin with exercise
- A long-term dry cough
- Coughing up blood
- Chest tightness
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite with weight loss
- A dry, crackling sound in the lungs while breathing in
- Fingertips and toes that are wider and rounder than normal (called clubbing)
Contact your health care provider if you have these symptoms.
What causes Asbestosis?
When asbestos fibers are breathed in, they can cause swelling and scarring of lung tissues. This is called fibrosis.
What are risk factors for Asbestosis?
Health regulations over the past 50 to 60 years have increased worker safety. Laws have reduced workers’ exposure to asbestos. That means that most people with asbestosis were exposed before the late 1970s. With strict regulations, getting asbestosis on the job now is unlikely. However, many workers in industries like construction still face major workplace exposure.
Here is a list of common products and materials that contain asbestos:
- Insulation systems for attic, wall, wood-burning stoves, oil and coal furnaces, and door gaskets
- Vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives
- Roofing and siding shingles
- Plaster, cement, putties, and caulk used on walls and ceilings
- Hot water and steam pipe wrapping
- Heat-resistant fabrics
- Automobile clutch pads and brake linings
You can find more information about risk factors and work rules designed to protect you against asbestos at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website.
Health care providers diagnose asbestosis by taking a careful medical history, exposure history, and chest X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan. The CT images can show scarring of the lung tissues. This information, along with breathing tests, help determine how severe your asbestosis is. It can also show how much of your lung is working.
What to expect
Your provider will ask you about your breathing, both at rest and during exercise. He or she will also ask about your job to determine how much you were exposed to asbestos. It may be a good idea to prepare the following information in advance:
- Your symptoms and when they started
- Treatments given before the symptoms
- The work you have done throughout your career, including the length of time you spent in each job
- The products you were in contact with at work and whether you wore personal protective equipment.
- Smoking history
- Any old medical records, including chest X-rays or CT scans
During the physical exam, your provider will listen to your lungs. He or she may also order the following tests:
- Chest X-ray
- CT scan of the chest
- Lung function test
A biopsy, or a small sample of lung tissue, is usually not necessary to diagnose asbestosis.
Contact your provider if you have a history of exposure to asbestos and experience shortness of breath.
No treatment can reverse the damage done by asbestos. You can take steps to help slow the progression, however. Most important is to prevent further exposure to asbestos and to quit smoking. There are also treatments that your provider can prescribe to help ease your breathing and maintain your lung health.
The following actions can help you manage asbestosis:
- Prevent more exposure to asbestos.
- If you’re a smoker, medications may help you quit. You can also take medication to ease symptoms of cigarette-related lung problems.
- Flu and pneumonia vaccines do not treat asbestosis, but they are recommended for most people with lung disease.
- Treat lung infections early.
- If your oxygen levels are low, oxygen therapy may be helpful.
- Take part in lung rehabilitation, which is an exercise program designed to help all patients with chronic lung conditions.
In severe situations, you provider may also refer you to a lung transplant specialist.
You may get sick more often when you have asbestosis. As your disease progresses, you may need to make lifestyle changes. Such changes can include oxygen therapy, attending lung rehabilitation, and learning to do daily activities in a way that keeps you from feeling too short of breath.
If you have advanced disease, you may need to be hospitalized to help with your breathing. As with all lung diseases, it is important to ask your provider how to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible. If your provider thinks that your asbestosis will cause you to be hospitalized, he or she may recommended making plans for the future, such as filling out an advance directive. Taking these steps can ensure all of your wishes are respected.
Your health care team can help manage your symptoms. Follow these guidelines to prevent complications and improve your quality of life:
- Stay healthy:
- Eat a well-balanced diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables.
- Drink at least 6 glasses of water daily.
- Limit your salt intake.
- Get enough rest:
- Get enough sleep every night.
- Take short rests throughout the day.
- Exercise regularly:
- Stay as active as you can.
- Go to the gym, if your body allows.
- Don’t let yourself get too tired.
- Make sure the weather is suitable when you exercise outdoors.
- Prevent infections:
- Wash your hands often.
- Avoid large crowds.
- Get flu and pneumonia shots according to your provider’s recommendations.
- Recognize and treat any lung infections.
- Avoid exposure to polluted air:
- Stay inside when air pollution is severe and pollen counts are high.
- Avoid breathing pollutants that can trigger shortness of breath, such as secondhand smoke; traffic fumes; smog; aerosol sprays; and vapors from products such as paint, kerosene, and cleaning agents.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf to avoid breathing in cold air in cold weather.
- Avoid further exposure to asbestos.
Pay attention to people who live with you and see if they have similar symptoms. They may have been exposed to asbestos fibers from your clothes, shoes, and body. They may be at risk for developing the disease.
The American Lung Association recommends that patients and caregivers join the Living with Lung Disease Support Community to connect with others facing this disease. To talk to a trained lung professional, call the American Lung Association’s Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA. They can help answer your questions and connect you with additional support.
Questions to ask your health care provider
Making notes before your visit and taking along a trusted family member or friend can help you through the first appointment with your provider.
You and loved ones are likely to have many concerns and questions. These reactions are natural. It can be hard for you to know what to ask your health care team. Here are some questions that may help you:
- How and why did I get asbestosis?
- How advanced is my disease?
- What is the best treatment for my condition?
- What will my symptoms be?
- What symptoms should alert me to go to see a health care provider?
- What medications will I be given?
- What other treatments besides drugs are helpful?
- How will my disease progress?
- How much experience do you have managing asbestosis?
- Should I get a second opinion? Can you recommend someone?
- Am I a candidate for a lung transplant?
- What is the difference between asbestosis, pleural plaques, and mesothelioma?
- Can asbestos cause other lung problems besides fibrosis and cancer?
- My office has asbestos insulation. Will it cause lung problems?