Asbestosis is a lung condition caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. Usually, when particles in the air are breathed in, they are filtered out by the nose or the upper airways of the lungs. But asbestos particles are very thin and light, and sometimes are not filtered out before they reach the lungs. Asbestos can damage lung tissue and is responsible for causing several serious diseases, including cancer.
Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that are made up of bundles of tiny fibers. It is mined out of the ground. Asbestos has been widely used in building and manufacturing industries because it is not affected by heat or chemicals.
Asbestosis is caused when the fibers are inhaled deep into the lungs. Here they are trapped in tiny airways where they cause scarring, called fibrosis, to the lung tissue. Repeated or continuous exposure over a long time can cause scarring over large areas of the lungs. When this happens, lungs lose their elasticity. When lungs can’t expand and contract normally, a person will experience shortness of breath. Scarring also decreases the ability of the lungs to do their work of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Asbestosis primarily affects people who are regularly exposed to asbestos. The more a person is exposed, the greater their risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. However, most people who have had prolonged exposure to asbestos do not develop asbestosis. Those at highest risk are:
- People who handle asbestos material at their workplace:
- Workers who mine or process asbestos
- Construction workers
- Shipyard workers
- Vehicle mechanics
- Family members of people who work with asbestos and bring the fibers home on their hair or clothing
- People who work at sites where asbestos is found
Asbestosis takes a long time to develop. The earliest symptoms usually show up 10-40 years after first exposure. The disease can develop even when exposure to asbestos ended years before. The severity of the disease depends on the amount and length of time of exposure to asbestos. Symptoms get worse as the disease progresses and may include:
Other symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath--this is the first noticeable symptom and occurs with exercise or heavy effort
- Cough--the cough is persistent and productive (which means mucus is loosened)
- Chest pain or tightness
- Feeling generally unwell
- Loss of appetite
- Finger clubbing, in some cases, caused by a build-up of fluid
Although many of the symptoms may resemble a bad cold or asthma, when they are caused by asbestosis, they will not go away. A doctor will make a diagnosis when the following signs are present:
- A crackling sound in the lungs, heard through a stethoscope
- Distinctive results on x-rays
- Tests that show the lungs have reduced ability to function properly
There is no treatment to cure asbestosis, and the disease slowly gets worse. The first and most important changes a person can make are the following:
- Prevent further exposure to asbestos
- Stop smoking; people who have asbestosis and smoke cigarettes greatly increase their risk of developing lung cancer
Once the condition is diagnosed, treatment involves keeping the patient healthy and treating the symptoms. These measures include:
- Getting immediate treatment for colds and other respiratory infections
- Staying updated with vaccinations, especially for flu (influenza) and pneumococcus
- Avoiding crowds, where infections might be spread
- Having regular chest x-rays to watch for signs of cancers associated with asbestos
- Having oxygen therapy and other respiratory therapies that can make breathing easier
Since the 1970s, asbestos use and handling has been increasingly controlled by the government. Asbestosis can be prevented by controlling the asbestos dust and fibers in the workplace. In addition, people who handle asbestos at work must shower and change their clothes before leaving work. As a result of these measures, fewer people develop the disease. People who need to have asbestos removed from their house should seek help from professionals trained in asbestos removal.