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What is asbestosis?
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.
Who is affected by asbestosis?
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:
- Asbestos miners, installers or removers.
- Auto and aircraft mechanics.
- Construction crews.
- Electrical workers.
- Railroad and shipyard workers.
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 and Causes
What are the signs and symptoms of asbestosis?
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:
- Chest pain and tightness.
- Clubbing of your nails (large, rounded fingernails and toenails).
- Crackling sound when inhaling.
- Fatigue (extreme tiredness) and trouble exercising.
- Unintended weight loss.
What causes asbestosis?
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:
- Car clutch pads and brake linings.
- Construction cement, putties and plaster.
- Pipe wrapping.
- Siding and roof shingles.
- Vinyl floor tiles.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is asbestosis diagnosed?
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:
Management and Treatment
How is asbestosis treated?
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:
- Oxygen therapy: Receiving extra oxygen through a mask or tube in your nostrils help you breathe more comfortably.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation: Exercises and behavioral changes can improve your daily functioning.
- Lung transplant surgery: In rare cases, a new, healthy lung from a lung transplant can relieve symptoms and prolong life.
What can I do at home to manage the symptoms of asbestosis?
To make things easier on you if you have asbestosis, you can follow a healthy lifestyle by:
- Not smoking. If you do smoke, get help quitting. This is probably the most important thing you can do.
- Avoiding breathing air contaminated with allergens, pollution or secondhand smoke.
- Avoiding sick people and practicing good hand washing hygiene.
- Drinking lots of water.
- Eating a healthy diet.
- Exercising regularly after discussing an exercise plan or routine with your healthcare provider.
What are the complications that may be associated with asbestosis?
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:
- Lung cancer: Cancer that develops inside your lungs. People who have asbestosis who smoke cigarettes have a higher risk of lung cancer.
- Malignant mesothelioma: Cancer that forms in the lining of your abdomen, chest or lungs.
- Respiratory failure: Your lungs can’t put enough oxygen into your blood, and carbon dioxide builds up in your tissues.
- Right-sided heart failure (cor pulmonale): The right side of your heart stops working correctly.
How can you prevent asbestosis?
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.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with asbestosis?
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.
Does asbestosis affect life expectancy?
A severe case of asbestosis can cause death. However, many people continue living many years after diagnosis.
When should I see a healthcare provider?
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.
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?
If you have asbestosis, you may want to ask your healthcare provider these questions:
- How severe is my asbestosis?
- What type of treatment will help my symptoms?
- What can I do to avoid complications of asbestosis?
- What can I do to help my symptoms?
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma?
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.
Can you live with asbestosis?
Yes, you can live with asbestosis. Many people live long and fulfilling lives after being diagnosed with asbestosis.
Can lungs heal from asbestos?
Asbestosis can’t be cured. The scarring in your lungs doesn’t heal.
What are pleural plaques?
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.
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