Asbestos-Related Diseases

Exposure to asbestos can cause not only pleural mesothelioma and other types of cancer, but also severe scarring of the pleura, lungs and a disease known as asbestosis. These diseases, while not cancer, still can seriously impact the life of the victim, causing uncomfortable symptoms and prompting the need for treatment. Some of these conditions, such as pleural plaques and pleural effusion, are commonly present in the majority of pleural mesothelioma cases.

Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques are akin to scars on the lungs, caused by collagen deposits to the thin membrane that covers the lungs, also known as the pleura. These plaques form as a result of asbestos exposure. Plaques do not generally produce any notable symptoms. Furthermore, they are not considered a forerunner of cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 50 percent of all individuals who were regularly exposed to asbestos develop pleural plaques. Because they do not carry any distinct symptoms, they are often discovered during X-rays or CT scans that are performed for some other reason or they are detected during the routine screenings that many individuals who were exposed to asbestos participate in on an annual basis. Even though plaques don’t indicate cancer, the patient’s doctor may still want to order additional tests.

Pleural Effusion

Asbestos exposure also can cause pleural effusion, which is the buildup of fluid between the parietal and visceral layers of the pleura.

This fluid can cause pain and make it very difficult to breathe. If a person is found to have fluid in the pleural area, the doctor will probably order it to be tested for cancer cells. In addition, the fluid can be drained in order to relieve the uncomfortable symptoms it causes.

Pleural Thickening

Pleural thickening, or diffuse pleural thickening (DPT), occurs when prolonged exposure to asbestos causes extensive scarring that eventually thickens the pleura. The condition is one of the most common signs of asbestos exposure. Damage caused by DPT is irreversible. Treatment usually involves alleviating symptoms such as using steroids or a bronchodilator to make breathing easier.


Pleurisy, also known as pleuritic, is inflammation of the pleura. The condition develops when the two layers of the pleura rub against each other and become irritated. The inflammation can cause sharp pain in the chest, especially when inhaling and exhaling. Pleural effusion stemming from asbestos exposure can lead to pleurisy.

Pleural Scarring

Pleural scarring can develop when the membranes that line the chest wall become damaged through mesothelioma, lung disease, pleural effusions and other conditions that inflame or alter the function of the pleura.

Asbestos Lung Cancer

Research shows that inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer, which are two of the most commonly diagnosed types.


First named in 1928, asbestosis is a common ailment in individuals with prolonged exposure to asbestos. It is characterized by inflammation, scarring and severely diminished lung capacity. As with the latency period associated with pleural mesothelioma, symptoms of this disease may take 10 to 30 years to appear, long after exposure has occurred in some cases.

The most prevalent symptom of asbestosis is pulmonary fibrosis, defined as a scarring or thickening of the lungs. Hence, the lungs become stiffened, making it difficult for them to expand and contract.

Symptoms of asbestosis include:
  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity. Later, this shortness of breath may expand to times of rest.
  • Less tolerance for physical activity
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • A phlegm-producing cough
  • Clubbing of fingers (in some cases)

Asbestosis symptoms may be easily confused with those of other more common pulmonary ailments, including asthma. That is why misdiagnosis often occurs. Asbestosis symptoms, however, develop over a long period of time, making it different from many other lung-related ailments. Anyone who suspects they may have asbestosis should inform their doctor of their history with asbestos.

How Does Asbestosis Develop?

Asbestosis occurs when an individual inhales tiny, sharp asbestos fibers. These fibers can become lodged in the lungs and may eventually cause scarring and stiffening. Once inhaled, asbestos fibers are difficult to dispel, and even the body’s macrophages, which are attracted to and can ingest foreign substances, have difficulty fighting asbestos fibers. The result is cumulative scarring of the air sacs (alveoli) which results in difficulty breathing because lung capacity is diminished. It will also take more muscular effort to breathe than it would for a person with normal lungs.

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Asbestosis and Asbestos Exposure

Not everyone who suffers prolonged exposure to asbestos develops asbestosis. However, reports have shown that people who have experienced moderate to severe asbestos exposure over a period of ten years or longer are at a significantly higher risk for developing this and other asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos miners are especially susceptible.

It normally takes as much as 10 years after the first exposure to asbestos for individuals to develop asbestosis. However, in recent cases of asbestosis among emergency workers who responded to the 9-11 attacks, it has been proven that the disease can develop much more quickly if exposure is at intense levels.

Smoking does not cause asbestosis but it can aggravate the condition. There is also proof that individuals with asbestosis who smoke are much more likely to develop lung cancer because of their smoking habit. Smoking does not increase the risk of developing pleural mesothelioma, but it does compromise the lungs making them more susceptible to disease.

Tests for Asbestosis

Patients who suspect they may have developed asbestosis should provide their doctor with a thorough occupational history so that the link to asbestos inhalation is apparent and so that the doctor can order the proper tests to confirm or deny this diagnosis.

When first testing for asbestosis, the doctor may listen to your lungs. Lungs affected by asbestosis often produce a particular dry, crackling sound. However, that is not sufficient for a diagnosis. Most likely, your doctor will order some sort of imaging test, ranging from a simply chest X-ray to a CT scan or MRI. He may also perform a pulmonary function test to determine how well the lungs are working.

Treatment for Asbestosis

There is no cure for asbestosis. Instead, your doctor will focus on relieving the symptoms of the disease and making sure that it does not progress. As was previously mentioned, it is essential for all asbestosis victims who are smokers to stop smoking immediately. Patients may need to wear oxygen masks to assist with breathing and doctors may suggest flu or pneumonia vaccines to avoid respiratory illnesses that can cause further complications. Blood thinning medications may also be suggested in order to prevent blood clots from forming and obstructing already-narrowed vessels. In some cases, lung transplant surgery may be suggested.

Complications from Asbestosis

Common complications from asbestosis include:
Pulmonary hypertension - high blood pressure in the lung's arteries
Lung cancer - those who smoke and have asbestosis are at a higher risk for cancer development.
Pleural Mesothelioma - the cancer has been known to develop in those with asbestosis.
Heart problems - pulmonary hypertension caused by asbestosis can lead to the enlargement of the heart's right ventricle and, eventually, its failure.

All of these conditions may be life threatening, so patients should be careful to monitor their overall health when they have asbestosis.

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