Learn About Asbestosis
Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition that is caused by prolonged exposure to high concentrations of asbestos fibers in the air.
- Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used as an insulation material. Exposure to asbestos can occur in certain occupations.
- Inhalation of large amount of asbestos fibers or its dust over a long period of time can produce scarring of lung tissues. This scarring is called asbestosis.
- There is no treatment for asbestosis. Preventing inhalation by wearing proper protective masks in the workplace is the key to prevent the disease.
What Is Asbestosis?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used as an insulation material. Exposure to asbestos can occur in several occupations. Large amounts of asbestos fibers or dust inhaled over long period of time can produce damage and scar tissue in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. This condition is called asbestosis.
How It Affects Your Body
Inhaled asbestos fibers and dust are trapped in the lung. The lung tries unsuccessfully to remove the asbestos through the immune system, leading to damage and scar tissue. Asbestosis usually develops slowly and may not be noticed until 20 years after asbestos dust exposure. Other health problems besides asbestosis are also related to asbestos exposure; these include thickening and hardening of the lining of the lung (pleural plaques), fluid around the lung (pleural effusions), and malignant mesothelioma⎯a cancer surrounding the lung. Smokers with asbestos exposure are also at very high risk of developing lung cancer.
How Serious Is Asbestosis?
The severity of asbestosis depends on how long you were exposed to asbestos and the amount you inhaled. Asbestosis does not occur from exposure to asbestos that is not in an inhalable dust form. Exposure from buildings where asbestos insulation is not exposed to the air does not increase your risk of asbestosis. Sometimes the symptoms are only mild, and you may be diagnosed only with chest x-ray. However, breathing may become more difficult over time as asbestosis progresses, even after you are no longer exposed to asbestos. You may eventually need supplemental oxygen therapy to help you breathe. The disease can lead to failure of the heart and lungs and sometimes death.
Asbestosis Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors
When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can cause inflammation and scarring of lung tissues. This is called “fibrosis.”
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Asbestosis?
- Shortness of breath
- A persistent dry cough
- Chest tightness
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite with weight loss
- A dry, crackling sound in the lungs while breathing in
- Wider and rounder than normal fingertips and toes (clubbing)
What Are Risk Factors?
Health regulations over the last 50 to 60 years have steadily reduced exposure of workers to asbestos, such that most people with asbestosis had their exposure before the late 1970s. With strict regulations, contracting asbestosis on the job now is extremely unlikely. Nonetheless, many workers in construction and some other industries still face significant workplace exposure.
Here is a list of common products and materials containing 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 wall 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 in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website.
When to See Your Doctor
If you have a history of exposure to asbestos and you’re experiencing increasing shortness of breath, you should contact your primary care doctor about the possibility of asbestosis. He or she likely will refer you to a doctor specializing in lung problems (pulmonologist).
Diagnosing and Treating Asbestosis
Asbestosis is usually diagnosed by a careful medical history, exposure history, and chest x-ray or CT scan that shows scarring of the lung tissues. This information, along with breathing tests, help your doctor determine how severe your asbestosis is and how much of your lung is working.
What to Expect
During the visit, your doctor will ask about your breathing, both at rest and during exercise. Your doctor will also ask about your jobs in detail to determine how much you were exposed to asbestos. So, it would be a good idea to prepare the following information in advance:
- Your symptoms and the time they started
- Treatments given before the symptoms
- The work you have done in your entire career; the length of time you spent in each job
- The products you were in contact with at work and whether or not you wore protective equipment
- Smoking history
- Any old medical records, including chest x-rays or CT scans
During the physical examination, your doctor will listen to your lungs to determine if the sounds are normal or not. Your doctor may then order the following tests:
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan of the chest
- Lung function test
Biopsy, where small samples of lung tissue are surgically removed and then examined for the scars and tiny asbestos fibers, is usually not necessary to diagnose asbestosis.
How Asbestosis Is Treated
There is no treatment that can reverse the damage done by asbestos. You can take certain steps to help slow down the progression, especially preventing further exposure to asbestos and quitting smoking. There are also treatments that your physician can prescribe to help ease your breathing and maintain your general lung health.
- Stopping smoking
- In smokers, medications may be prescribed to help quit, or to ease symptoms that may be related to cigarette-related lung problems.
- Flu and pneumonia vaccines do not treat asbestosis, but are recommended for almost everyone with lung disease.
- In some with low oxygen levels, oxygen using a tube that fits in the nostrils or by mask may be helpful.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation, which is an exercise program designed to help all patients with chronic lung conditions.
In very severe situations, you doctor may also refer you to a lung transplant specialist.
Living With Asbestosis
Asbestosis is a chronic disease. Although there is no cure, you can take certain steps to improve the quality of life for you and your family.
What to Expect
You may get sick more often when you have asbestosis. As your disease progresses, you may need to make lifestyle changes like using oxygen, attending pulmonary rehabilitation, and learning to go about your daily life in a way that keeps you from feeling too short of breath.
In very advanced diseases, you may need to be hospitalized to help with your breathing. As with all lung diseases, it is important to discuss with your doctor how to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible. If your doctor thinks there may be a point when your asbestosis will cause you to be hospitalized, he or she may recommended making plans for the future. He or she might recommend filling out an advance directive and taking other steps so that should you be hospitalized, all of your wishes are respected.
Your doctor can help manage your symptoms. You can also help yourself by doing the following to prevent complications of the disease and improve your quality of life.
- Maintain nutrition
- Eat a well-balanced diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables.
- Drink adequate amounts of water, at least six glasses of water daily.
- Limit your salt intake.
- Get enough rest
- Adequate sleep every night.
- Take frequent short rests during the day.
- Exercise regularly
- Stay as active as you can.
- Go to the gym, if your body allows.
- Do not overexert yourself.
- 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 doctor’s recommendations.
- Avoid exposure to bad air
- Stay inside when air pollution is severe and pollen counts are high.
- Avoid breathing pollutants that can trigger shortness of breath, including second-hand 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.
Pay attention to people who live with you, and see if they have similar symptoms. They may have been exposed to asbestos fibers you might have brought home on your clothes, shoes, and body and are now developing the disease.
Communicate regularly with your doctors about changes in your breathing and general health. The Lung Association recommends patients and caregivers join our Living with Lung Disease Support Community or Better Breathers Clubs to connect with others facing this disease. You can also call the Lung Association’s Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA to talk to a trained respiratory professional who can help answer your questions and connect you with additional support.
Patients with asbestosis have filed lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers and employers for failing to provide a safe workplace. Asbestos lawsuits can take a long time and may be expensive. Some received money while others did not. You should consult a good attorney if you believe that you have respiratory problems from asbestos exposure.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Asbestosis
If you are seen by your primary care doctor, you can ask him to refer you to a doctor who has experience in managing asbestosis. When you are diagnosed with asbestosis, you and loved ones are likely to have many concerns and questions. These reactions are natural, and it can be hard for you to know what to ask your doctor. Here are some questions that you may want to ask your doctor:
- 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 doctor?
- What medications will I be given?
- What other treatments besides drugs are helpful?
- What is my prognosis?
- How much experience do you have managing asbestosis?
- Should I get a second opinion? Can you recommend someone?
- Am I a candidate for lung transplantation?
- 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?
Mary Cataletto, MD, FCCP
Sheetal Gandotra, MD
Yuh-Chin Huang, MD, FCCP
Date Last Reviewed