Asbestos Exposure and Disease
As a carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, mineral, asbestos was once frequently used in many different capacities due to its durability and fire-resistant properties. It was used widely in construction and other industrial occupations and is often found in older buildings, job sites, and military bases. In the environment, asbestos is a group of minerals that occurs naturally in fibrous bundles and can be found in soil and rock.
Since asbestos is so fibrous, when disturbed it can be expelled into the air. That is when it becomes dangerous. When asbestos fibers are present they can easily be inhaled or ingested by surrounding workers or residents. Once the fibers get lodged in the lung tissues they remain there, further irritating and damaging the surrounding tissues. After several years or even decades, this inflammation leads to diseases like pleural effusion.
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What Is Pleural Effusion?
Sometimes pleural effusion is referred to as “water on the lungs.” The condition consists of fluid buildup between layers of tissue in the pleura (thin membranes that line the lungs and the inside of the chest cavity) outside the lungs. When the pleura is irritated, infected, or inflamed, it begins to accumulate excess fluid. After too much build-up, it fills the chest cavity and creates pleural effusion.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
There are some people with pleural effusion who don’t exhibit symptoms. These patients may find out about their condition through a chest x-ray or examination that a doctor may perform for a different reason. For those who do experience symptoms, they include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing, or taking deep breaths
- Dry cough
- Recurrent hiccups
- Trouble with physical activity
Contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms so they can examine you, make a diagnosis, and determine the course of treatment.
Your doctor can choose from multiple methods, including a chest x-ray or ultrasound, to diagnose pleural effusion. Your doctor can also determine if something is wrong simply by listening to your lungs.
Treatment Options for Pleural Effusion
There are multiple treatment options for pleural effusion, and each option based on the patient’s individual needs, overall health, and doctor recommendations. Some treatment options are not feasible if the primary reason for pleural effusion is cancer. Treatments consist of:
As the name suggests, draining treatment encompasses the removal of excess fluid from the patient’s chest cavity with a needle or small tube. You will first be placed under a local anesthetic, where the doctor will insert the small tube or needle into the chest cavity to release the fluid.
A doctor will create a mild inflammation between the lung and chest cavity pleura, pull the extra fluid out of the chest cavity, and then treat the disease by injecting a medicine into the irritated area. This medication (usually a talc mix) can stop pleural effusion by causing the two layers of the pleura to stick, preventing future fluid buildup.
For more severe versions of pleural effusion, the doctor may perform surgery by inserting a tube or other tool directly into the patient’s chest cavity. The doctor will then attempt to redirect the liquid from the chest to the abdomen, where the body can effectively remove it.
Risks of Treatment
All treatments hold some risk. Side-effects of pleural effusion treatment are usually resolved with certain prescription medications. Most people recover from the procedure within a few days or weeks. The most common side-effect is pain or discomfort in the incision site, but this usually recedes with time. Other risks or complications of pleural effusion treatment can include:
- Pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs if it’s drained too quickly)
- Partial or collapsed lung
- Infection or excess bleeding
While patients should be aware of possible complications, these rarely occur. Your doctor can ensure you are following the best treatment plan for your specific condition.
Other Asbestos-Related Conditions
Since asbestos is a carcinogen, prolonged exposure has been linked to several different cancers, the most common being mesothelioma. Prolonged exposure can also cause several asbestos-related conditions that are non-malignant or non-cancerous.
Some other malignant asbestos-related diseases include:
Tumors that develop in the “voice box” or larynx
Tumors that develop in the lungs
The development of cancer in the lining of the lungs (pleural), abdomen (peritoneal), or heart (pericardial)
Non-malignant diseases include:
When asbestos fibers get lodged deep in the lung and cause irritation, inflammation, and breathing problems
Areas of hard, scar-like tissue in the pleura that form as a result of prolonged asbestos exposure
There are more asbestos-related conditions. Still, the ones above are the most common and easiest to link to asbestos exposure.
If you believe you’ve been exposed to asbestos at some point, even if you don’t have any symptoms, see your doctor. Some lung cancers have long latency periods and can take over 20 years to develop. The earlier you visit a doctor, the better. You’ll also have a wider array of treatment options, and the condition and its symptoms may not be as far advanced.
Mesothelioma treatments and therapies can be expensive. Learn about the different compensation options you may have to help offset costs.