Asbestosis is a chronic, often progressive lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos, a mineral that for decades was used in construction and manufacturing. The majority of people who have asbestosis were exposed to asbestos through their jobs, and the mineral is still in use in many parts of the world, including the United States, though it is more well-regulated than it was a half-century ago.
The symptoms of asbestosis can be mistaken for cancer, including mesothelioma, and while asbestosis is benign in the sense that it does not spread to other areas of the body, it can be progressive, meaning that it can worsen over time.
Learn more about the stages of asbestosis, how the disease is diagnosed, what common symptoms to watch out for and how you should proceed if you or a loved has been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Asbestos Exposure & At-Risk Groups
There is only one cause of asbestosis — exposure to asbestos. While asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, those who are most at risk of developing asbestosis and other asbestos-related conditions are individuals whose jobs involved mining, installing or removing asbestos.
- Railroad workers
- Boiler operators
- Construction workers
- Aircraft mechanics
- Auto mechanics
- Plumbing workers
- Refinery workers
While those who worked directly with asbestos are at the greatest risk from asbestosis, they are not the only ones who potentially could be exposed. As mentioned, asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, and people who live in areas where it was mined could have been exposed before asbestos mining in the U.S. was halted, and those who worked directly with the substance could potentially carry tiny fibers home on their shoes or clothing without knowing it, exposing their family members to the substance.
Use of asbestos has been limited by law in the United States since the 1980s (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), but it remains in use for certain purposes, and removal of past installations of the material is still associated with risk of developing lung problems, including asbestosis.
Asbestosis Symptoms & Diagnosis
Asbestosis occurs when asbestos fibers are inhaled into the lungs, where they cause scarring. As many as 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace (World Health Organization), and most asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis, do not become detectable for years. In fact, it can take as long as 40 years for a person’s body to begin showing signs of asbestosis. (American Lung Association)
SEE ALSO: Asbestosis vs Mesothelioma Cancer Differences
Individuals who have been exposed to asbestos, even in small amounts, should monitor themselves for signs of the disease, which can vary considerably in severity. Asbestosis symptoms include:
- Persistent dry cough
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Dry, crackling sound when inhaling
- Wider, rounder than normal fingertips
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
For those with a history of exposure to asbestos, whether because they worked directly with the substance or were exposed to it for another reason, should consult their doctor or a pulmonary specialist, who will conduct scans, such as X-rays or CT scans, to detect the extent of lung damage.
Upon diagnosis, a physician will generally classify a case of asbestosis into one of three categories based on X-rays and other imaging that’s done on the patient’s lungs. Their classification is based on the scope of damage that asbestos exposure has created inside the person’s body.
The categories are unnamed, but there are the three stages of this disease based on details that can be observed in X-rays (Medscape):
- First stage: A fine reticular pattern, usually at the base of the lungs; pattern may have the appearance of ground glass
- Second stage: Irregular spots in connective tissue; pattern may obscure appearance of heart and diaphragm
- Third stage: Coarse pattern in connective tissue; honeycomb pattern in upper areas of lung; heart and diaphragm are further obscured
Because the progression described above is open to interpretation and may be influenced by the sensitivity of X-ray equipment, many doctors will use CT scans to further refine any possible abnormalities in the lungs of people exposed to asbestos. The added specificity of these scans, combined with victims’ descriptions of their symptoms, help them more accurately classify how advanced the disease is in a particular patient.
Asbestosis is not a form of cancer, but research has suggested that some people whose asbestosis is progressive are more likely to develop lung cancer (PubMed). A study in the United Kingdom found that 46% of patients with progressive asbestosis developed lung cancer compared to just 9% of those who had asbestosis that was controlled.
There is no known cure for asbestosis, and the disease is progressive in most patients, meaning it gets worse over time. Also, unfortunately, it’s not possible to reverse damage that’s already been done. However, for those who are suffering from the disease, there are a few ways to slow the progression of the disease and preserve lung health:
- Quit smoking, which can both improve respiratory and heart health as well as reduce the risk of lung cancer from cigarettes
- Get all recommended seasonal flu shots or pneumonia vaccines, which can help reduce the strain on the respiratory system
- Consider respiratory therapy or pulmonary rehabilitation, which can improve lung function
In some dire cases, doctors may recommend lung transplant for patients who are otherwise good candidates for organ transplant, but for most people who are diagnosed with asbestosis, the rest of their lives will be about disease management rather than a cure.
That could mean monitoring air quality conditions and staying inside if pollution is an issue where you live or the pollen count is high, or it could mean being cautious about exercise to avoid overtaxing the pulmonary and respiratory systems. Asbestosis victims also would be wise to avoid breathing in fumes of any kind, even from paint or cleaning agents, as such chemicals can trigger an inflammatory response in the lungs.
Doctors also usually will recommend that asbestosis victims get regular repeat X-rays of their lungs to chart any progression of their disease, which can help inform any additional lifestyle changes or treatment options.
Advanced stages of asbestosis can cause cardiac failure because of the strain on the system, and because there is no effective treatment, it is usually fatal.
Get Asbestosis Legal Help
Individuals and families of those exposed to asbestos may be eligible for compensation even if they don’t file a lawsuit. That’s because more than $30 billion is available through the Asbestos Trust Funds, and asbestosis victims and their families may qualify immediately. Complete the form or call us toll-free (800) 352-0871 to find out whether you qualify.