Asbestos Exposure and Disease
A carcinogenic (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 situations and can be found in older buildings, specific job sites, military bases, and the environment. 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 in the air they can easily be inhaled or ingested by surrounding workers or residents. Once the fibers get lodged in the lung tissues it remains there, where it will irritate and further damage the tissues around it. After several years, sometimes even 10 to 20 years, diseases can develop from these fibers, pleural effusion being one of them.
What is Pleural Effusion?
Sometimes pleural effusion can be 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 can begin to accumulate excess fluid. After too much builds up, the chest cavity becomes filled with that excess, creating pleural effusion.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
There are some people with pleural effusion who don’t exhibit symptoms. These people 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 experience symptoms, they can 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 to diagnose pleural effusion. The primary methods for diagnosing include a chest x-ray or ultrasound. Your doctor can also determine if something is wrong by listening to your lungs with a stethoscope.
Treatment Options for Pleural Effusion
There are multiple treatment options for pleural effusion, each option based on the patient’s individual needs, overall health, and doctor recommendations. Some treatment options are not an option if the primary reason for pleural effusion is cancer. Some treatments consist of:
As the name suggests, draining treatment encompasses the removal (or draining) 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 properly drain it.
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 more efficiently remove it.
Risks of Treatment
All treatments hold some risk. Side-effects of pleural effusion treatment can usually be taken care of with certain medications your doctor may prescribe. 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 entirely 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-conditions that are non-malignant or non-cancerous.
Some other malignant asbestos-related diseases include:
Larynx Cancer –
Tumors that develop in the “voice box” or larynx
Lung Cancer –
When tumors develop in the lung
The development of cancer in the lining of the lungs (pleural), abdomen (peritoneal), or heart (pericardial)
Other non-malignant diseases are:
When asbestos fibers get lodged deep in the lung and cause irritation, inflammation, and breathing problems
Pleural Plaques –
Areas of hard, scar-like tissue in the pleura that form from 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 in your life, it could be helpful to go to the doctor even if you haven’t exhibited symptoms. These diseases have long latency periods; they can take over 20 years to develop. The earlier you visit a doctor and get a diagnosis, the higher chance you have of receiving a better prognosis. You’ll also have a wider array of treatment options, and the condition and its symptoms may not be as far advanced.