Smoking and Mesothelioma What to Know

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Recent research suggests that while smoking does not cause mesothelioma, smoking does make you 50-84 times more likely to develop the disease if you were exposed to asbestos. Smoking causes an inflammatory response in the lungs that can lead to more hardening, scarring, and damaging of tissue after asbestos exposure.

Below is more information about the connection between smoking, mesothelioma, and other diseases.

How Mesothelioma and Smoking Are Connected

There is a higher risk of developing mesothelioma if you smoke and were exposed to asbestos. The higher risk of developing asbestos cancer is because there are fewer cilia in the lungs of someone who smokes. (

Every time you smoke a cigarette, cilia functionality is temporarily damaged. Long-term smoking leads to fewer cilia, so the lungs have more difficulty cleansing themselves of damaging particles, such as asbestos. (

Cilia also have a harder time doing its job because smokers have more mucus and decreased oxygen intake in the smoker’s lungs. Mucus can cause infection and also can trap more asbestos fibers. The scarring that is caused by asbestos fibers is made worse by the damaged air sacs in the lungs. The air sacs, or alveoli, are damaged when you smoke, which causes more lung scarring.

Scarring reduces oxygen intake, which can make breathing more difficult if you already have asbestos in your lungs.

Asbestos Exposure and Smoking in High-Risk Occupations

Smoking and asbestos exposure can be even more dangerous for workers in high-risk industries. Occupational asbestos exposure is the most common cause of mesothelioma, with at least 124 million people exposed to the carcinogen on the job annually. (

Because of the high rate of asbestos exposure in these industries, the National Cancer Institute recommends these workers should not smoke or should stop immediately to reduce their mesothelioma risk.

If these workers smoke, the asbestos and cigarette toxins can scar and irritate lung tissue, which can cause asbestos cancer to develop faster; usually, the latency period between initial asbestos exposure and developing mesothelioma is 20-50 years.

Continuing to smoke after mesothelioma has developed also can reduce the patient’s quality of life. Clinical studies show that smoking worsens pleural mesothelioma symptoms, such as cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Smoking after a mesothelioma diagnosis also can make the side effects from treatments worse, as well as make those treatments less effective.

Smoking also can lead to co-occurring cancer, such as non-asbestos lung cancer. Stopping smoking will improve your health overall and reduces the risk of mesothelioma. For some patients, quitting smoking can boost circulation and normalize blood carbon monoxide levels. Clinical research also shows that stopping smoking can increase your life expectancy and reduce mortality risk by 30-40%.

Smoking and Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Clinical studies suggest that asbestos-related lung cancer accounts for up to 3% of all lung cancer diagnoses. While smoking is the major cause of lung cancer, being exposed to asbestos can cause tumors to form in lung tissue that cause the disease. (

The risk of asbestos-related lung cancer is increased in smokers and people with asbestosis. One clinical study of insulation workers found there was an increased chance of cancer among smokers who were exposed to asbestos in their work. Researchers found:

  • Smokers who were exposed to asbestos were 14 times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers.
  • Workers who were diagnosed with asbestosis and smoked had a 37 times higher risk of lung cancer than nonsmokers.
  • Smoking and asbestos exposure led to a chance of dying from lung cancer that was at least 28 times that of nonsmokers.

While smoking leads to a high risk of lung cancer is asbestos workers, clinical studies show that if they quit smoking, there is a drop in cancer risk. For example, 30 years after quitting smoking, asbestos workers have approximately the same risk of developing lung cancer as a nonsmoker.

A 2013 clinical study found that within 10 years of quitting, lung cancer mortality rates were about the same as people who had never smoked.

Smoking and Asbestosis

Smoking also can increase the risk of developing asbestosis. Asbestosis is a non-cancerous, chronic lung disease that can develop after extended asbestos exposure. Over the years, inhaling asbestos fibers causes inflammation and scarring of lung tissue. (

Doctors believe that smokers have a higher risk of asbestosis because smokers’ lungs have been damaged from cigarettes. The lungs suffer additional irritation and scarring from asbestos fibers. Damage to the lungs from inhaling cigarette smoke before asbestos exposure may allow more fibers into the lungs, leading to asbestosis.

Clinical research also shows that secondhand smoke can boost the risk of asbestosis and asbestos diseases for fetuses. Exposure to smoke before the child is born can damage the baby’s immune system response to asbestos later in life. This can make them more likely to get asbestosis or mesothelioma after asbestos exposure. The risk is increased when exposure to tobacco smoke continues as the fetus develops.

If you smoke and have asbestosis, the severity of the disease and symptoms increase as you age. Treatment for asbestosis centers on enhancing your ability to breathe with inhalers and other medications. Smoking can damage the benefits of asbestosis treatments.


Evidence shows that smokers who have been exposed to asbestos have a much higher risk of developing mesothelioma, as well as asbestosis and asbestos-caused lung cancer. Smoking also has a negative effect on mesothelioma treatments. Stopping smoking is always a good idea, but it is even more important if you ever were exposed to asbestos.