Asbestosis is a type of lung disease caused by breathing in asbestos dust and fibers. The disease causes fibrosis (scarring) of your lungs and pleura. Asbestosis can be managed, but not cured.
Asbestosis is a lung disease that occurs in people who inhale asbestos fibers and dust over a long period of time. Asbestos is a mineral that forms tiny and long-lasting fibers.
When asbestos fibers and dust get into your lungs, they can cause fibrosis (thickening and scarring of the lungs). Asbestos can also cause the membranes surrounding your lungs (the pleura) to thicken. This scarring and thickening of lung tissue can make breathing difficult.
In some cases, asbestosis can lead to life-threatening complications, including lung cancer and heart failure. In severe cases, asbestosis can be fatal.
You’re more at risk of getting asbestosis if you have long-term exposure to asbestos. This is true if your job involves handling materials containing asbestos. These types of jobs include:
Even if you don’t work with asbestos, you could be at risk if you live with someone who comes home from one of these jobs and has dust or fibers on their clothing. You can also be at risk of breathing in particles if you’re around a demolition site or you’re near an asbestos mine.
Most people with asbestosis inhaled asbestos particles while at work before the 1970s. At that time, the U.S. government enacted regulations to limit on-the-job asbestos exposure.
Today, you’re unlikely to develop asbestosis if you follow safety regulations. However, asbestosis can take a long time to appear. Doctors sometimes diagnose asbestosis in people who acquired the disease many years ago.
Symptoms of asbestosis vary depending on the severity of the disease. Symptoms may not appear for 20 to 30 years or more after asbestos exposure.
The first symptom of asbestosis you might notice is having trouble breathing (being short of breath), especially when you’re working hard or exercising. Other signs and symptoms may include:
The main cause of asbestosis is inhaling asbestos fibers or dust over a long period of time. This leads to the thickening and scarring of your lungs and pleura (very thin tissue, or membrane, that line your lungs).
Breathing in asbestos particles in the air causes asbestosis. Undisturbed asbestos — such as in insulation or tile — doesn’t increase your risk of the disease.
Building and manufacturing industries used asbestos widely in the past. As a result, some people developed asbestosis after repeatedly inhaling asbestos particles while at work in these industries.
Materials and products that may contain asbestos include:
Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about your medical history. Remember to tell them about your exposure to any harmful substances like asbestos.
Your healthcare provider may also order tests to complete the diagnosis. These might include:
Treating asbestosis aims to manage symptoms and preserve function in your lungs. Your treatment depends on the severity of the disease. Your options might include:
To make things easier on you if you have asbestosis, you can follow a healthy lifestyle by:
Many people who have asbestosis have breathing trouble and a cough that doesn’t go away. In more severe cases, complications can be life-threatening.
Complications of asbestosis may include:
You can reduce your risk of asbestosis by avoiding long-term exposure to asbestos. If your job involves exposure to the mineral, you should wear a respirator (a mask that filters particles from the air). This protective mask keeps you from inhaling asbestos fibers or dust.
If you know you’ve had asbestos exposure, you should have regular exams and chest X-rays. These tests don’t prevent asbestosis but can help catch it early.
If you’ve been exposed to asbestos and you smoke, quitting smoking is your best way to reduce your risk of getting cancer.
Asbestosis can’t be cured. You can’t reverse the damage from the disease. Once you breathe in asbestos fibers, they stay in your body. Your prognosis varies depending on how long and how much exposure you had to the particles.
Many people with mild asbestosis live fulfilling lives for many years after being diagnosed, but some cases get worse over time. You may need medical management throughout your life.
Your healthcare provider is likely to order chest X-rays and lung function tests every few years to look for changes in the scarring in your lungs. The findings on your imaging tests will change as the stages of your condition progress.
You should stay current with vaccines, especially the pneumococcal vaccine and the influenza vaccine. Also, ask your healthcare provider about vaccination for COVID-19 infection.
A severe case of asbestosis can cause death. However, many people continue living many years after diagnosis.
Contact your healthcare provider if you’ve been exposed to asbestos and have trouble breathing, chest discomfort or a cough that doesn’t go away. Be sure to tell your doctor about your asbestos exposure, even if it’s second-hand.
If you have asbestosis, you may want to ask your healthcare provider these questions:
The main difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma is that mesothelioma is cancer and asbestosis isn’t cancer. The disease of asbestosis remains in your lungs and pleura (the covering of your lungs). Mesothelioma begins in the tissue of your lungs and abdomen. It can spread throughout your body. Having asbestosis doesn’t mean you won’t have cancer. It’s possible to develop lung cancer or mesothelioma later on.
Yes, you can live with asbestosis. Many people live long and fulfilling lives after being diagnosed with asbestosis.
Asbestosis can’t be cured. The scarring in your lungs doesn’t heal.
Pleural plaques are thick spots in your pleura (the very thin tissues that line your lungs). You do get pleural plaques from asbestos exposure, but they don’t cause symptoms. They aren’t the same as asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer. Having pleural plaques doesn’t increase your risk for those diseases.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you work or ever worked with asbestosis, or live with someone who is working with asbestos, help yourself by not smoking. If you feel any type of new difficulties breathing, talk with your healthcare provider about your concerns. There are ways to manage your condition if you have asbestosis.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/27/2021.
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