What Is Asbestosis?
Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals. While asbestos has been used in a number of residential and commercial products because of its durability and fire-resistant properties, it is also a proven human carcinogen. Unfortunately, 15,000 Americans die every year from asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis and mesothelioma.
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What Causes Asbestosis?
The only known cause of asbestosis is exposure to asbestos. Before the 1980s, asbestos was used heavily in insulation, tile flooring, roofing, piping, automobile clutch pads, construction materials, and fireproof fabrics. Navy veterans, firefighters and first responders, industrial and construction workers, and other blue-collar occupations have a higher risk of exposure to asbestos.
When ingested or inhaled, the microscopic asbestos fibers become lodged in the lung’s air sacs, or the alveoli. Over time, this causes scarring and stiffening of the lungs, both of which affect overall lung function.
Like mesothelioma, asbestosis has a long latency period (time between initial exposure and the first sign of symptoms), often between 10 and 40 years. Early detection can greatly improve an asbestosis prognosis. Talk to your doctor if you have a work history around asbestos. Informing your doctors will allow them to look for early signs of asbestos-related disease during your regular checkups.
When scar tissue forms on the lungs as a result of irritation from the microscopic asbestos fibers, it becomes increasingly difficult for your lungs to receive optimal amounts of fresh air. The most common symptoms associated with asbestosis are chronic cough and shortness of breath. Additional symptoms include:
- A crackling sound in the lungs when inhaling
- Chest pain and tightness
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Nail clubbing (wider, rounder-than-normal fingertips and toes due to lack of oxygen to the body’s extremities)
- Pulmonary hypertension (scar tissue constricts arteries, making the heart work harder to circulate blood throughout the body)
Diagnosing and Treating Asbestosis
Speak with your doctor right away if you experience any of the above symptoms, sharing with them any history you may have with asbestos. Your primary care doctor will likely refer you to a pulmonologist (a doctor specializing in the lungs and respiratory system).
The pulmonologist will start with a physical exam, paying close attention to your breathing and the function of your lungs. Next steps typically include a chest x-ray, CT scan, and lung function test. A biopsy may also be taken to examine the lung tissue for asbestos fibers, but this is usually not necessary for diagnosing asbestosis.
While there is no cure for asbestosis, there are treatments to help control the disease and its symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe an inhaler to help with chest congestion, tightness or lung wheezing. You may also receive supplemental oxygen to relieve difficulty breathing and improve your circulating oxygen levels (also called oxygen saturation or O2 sats). In extreme cases, you may be eligible for a lung transplant or other surgery to remove the affected lung tissue.
Doctors may also encourage pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) — a program designed to help improve lung function, minimize symptoms, and make breathing easier when living with a chronic lung condition. During PR, patients work with a team of specialists, often including a respiratory therapist, to determine a program best suited to their individual needs. Exercise, nutrition, and breathing techniques are commonly factored into a customized PR plan.
How To Minimize Symptoms
You can also boost your overall quality of life while living with asbestosis by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and exercising can help to improve your lung function and keep your body working properly. Be sure to get enough sleep and rest when your body needs it.
You should wash your hands often and avoid large crowds when possible to mitigate infection. As with other lung conditions, your doctor will probably recommend you get vaccinated for the flu and pneumonia. You should also avoid pollution, second-hand smoke, and other contaminated air to help promote healthy lung function. You can do this by checking the air quality index (AQI) in your area each day at AirNow.gov.
Perhaps most importantly, if you are a smoker, your doctor will advise you to stop smoking immediately.
Is Asbestosis Cancer?
Asbestosis is not cancer and it generally doesn’t significantly affect life expectancy. However, it can be a precursor to mesothelioma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), both of which are exacerbated by smoking. Studies show that those with a history of asbestos exposure who have stopped smoking significantly reduced their risk of developing lung cancer.
Asbestosis vs. Mesothelioma: What’s the Difference?
Asbestos exposure causes both asbestosis and mesothelioma. They both affect the respiratory system and have extremely long latency periods. They also share early symptoms, which is why it’s imperative that you visit your doctor immediately upon showing symptoms.
A key difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma is how the two diseases develop. Asbestosis develops as a result of asbestos fibers becoming stuck in the air sacs in the lungs, whereas mesothelioma is caused by asbestos fibers lodging into the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities (the mesothelium).
While asbestosis can increase the risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma, it’s a much less severe condition that often has a more favorable prognosis.
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Asbestosis Litigation and Claims Filing
Many victims of asbestos-related conditions were exposed to the toxic mineral unknowingly and negligently by their employer. For this reason, patients with asbestosis or mesothelioma are usually eligible for financial compensation.
As a result, there are a number of asbestos trusts in place to compensate victims. Veterans have special benefits and can seek compensation through VA claims, in addition to the asbestos trusts or filing a claim. If you or a loved one have been affected by mesothelioma, reach out through our free case evaluation form.