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Asbestos is a natural product that is resistant to temperature changes and corrosion. Because of this, it became extremely common as a building material. However, inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to serious health risks.

Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition that may develop decades after exposure to asbestos fibers. Though there is no cure, treatments can slow its progression and improve symptoms.

Causes

Exposure to high levels of asbestos over a significant period can cause airborne fibers to lodge within the alveoli of the lungs. These tiny sacs are where the body exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide in the blood. The fibers irritate and eventually scar the tissue, causing the lungs to stiffen and making breathing difficult.

Without treatment, the scarring worsens until the lungs can barely expand and contract.

A macro photograph fibers of the mineral chrysotile asbestos taken from the host rock with tweezers eanstudio / Shutterstock

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Signs and Symptoms

The effects of asbestos exposure may not appear until 10 to 40 years later. Symptoms can also vary in severity from minor breathing issues to complete respiratory failure.

The primary symptom of asbestosis is usually shortness of breath that slowly worsens, especially when performing physical activities. Some other common effects include

  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Changes in appetite, with weight loss
  • Fingertips and toes become rounder and wider, known as clubbing
  • Tightness and pain in the chest

woman difficulty breathing twinsterphoto / Getty Images

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Risk Factors

People who worked around asbestos before the late 1970s have the highest chance of having asbestosis. This includes construction workers, electricians, shipyard workers, and asbestos miners. Secondhand exposure can affect family members of these people because asbestos fibers can cling to work clothes.

Research indicates that smoking increases the retention of asbestos fibers in the lungs and causes asbestosis to progress more quickly.

miner welder at constriction site King Ropes Access / Shutterstock

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Diagnosis

Doctors can have difficulty diagnosing asbestosis due to its nonspecific symptoms and slow progression. People with a history of working with asbestos should immediately inform their doctors to make diagnosis easier.

During the diagnostic process, medical professionals will perform a physical exam to listen for a crackling sound while breathing. They will also typically order some form of imaging, such as a chest x-ray or CT scan.

Doctor examining chest x-ray film of patient at hospital utah778 / Getty Images

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Other Diagnostic Procedures

Because asbestosis usually affects lung capacity and performance, doctors may also perform pulmonary function tests. This typically involves blowing into a spirometer, though more advanced tests do exist.

Occasionally, a doctor may need to test if the lungs contain asbestos fibers. Bronchoscopy involves inserting a thin tube into the lungs through the nose or mouth to look for obstructions or gather fluid or tissue for a sample. Thoracentesis involves inserting a needle between the ribs to remove fluid from the lungs for testing and to improve breathing.

Patient holding spirometer RossHelen / Shutterstock

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Treatment Options

No cure exists for asbestosis and nothing can reverse the damage that asbestos fibers cause. Instead, treatment routes focus on slowing the condition’s progression, alleviating symptoms, and avoiding complications.

Regular drainage of lung secretions is often necessary.  Doctors will also recommend their patients be vaccinated against common respiratory infections like pneumococcal pneumonia and influenza.

Vaccination of senior person in hospital Inside Creative House / Getty Images

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Oxygen Therapy and Rehabilitation

Most people with asbestosis require oxygen therapy at home. Oxygen therapy uses nasal tubes or face masks to increase the amount of oxygen the lungs receive and transfer into the blood.

Pulmonary rehabilitation is also helpful for many individuals. A course of pulmonary rehabilitation usually includes health education, exercise, training, and breathing techniques that help improve lung performance.

inhalation therapy in progress Nikola Ilic / Getty Images

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Complications

Asbestosis dramatically increases the risk of developing several lung and heart complications. Most notably, people with the condition are much more likely to have lung cancer. Cancer of the tissue around the lungs, called malignant mesothelioma, can also form in some instances. Rarely, asbestosis leads to pulmonary heart disease.

Young sick man patient with Oxygen Mask while female doctor listens his chest with stethoscope SB Arts Media / Shutterstock

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Prevention

Avoiding asbestos is the best way to prevent asbestosis. However, some businesses continue to produce or work with asbestos products. In these instances, protective equipment like respirators and disposable suits, gloves, and shoes are necessary.

While asbestos still exists in many buildings, the risk of asbestos exposure is low as long as the materials remain enclosed and undisturbed.  

Man shaking off dust from gloves wearing respirator EvgeniyShkolenko / Getty Images

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Sources of Asbestos

Understanding what materials and buildings contain asbestos can make it easier to avoid asbestosis. Construction materials from before 1975 are the most likely to have asbestos. This includes

  • Caulk and similar compounds
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Heat-resistant fabrics
  • Insulation, especially over furnaces and steam pipes
  • Shingles
  • Textured paints and patching compounds.

Avoid disturbing these materials when redecorating or renovating an older building. If necessary, contact professionals for proper asbestos removal.

Asbestos mineral fiber in human fingers, close-up. eanstudio / Shutterstock

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.