The Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure

asbestos in petri dish

The negative health effects caused by asbestos exposure have been well documented. When asbestos fibers are released into the air and inhaled, they can settle into the lower region of the lungs, causing scarring and inflammation. Many individuals who are exposed to asbestos develop certain forms of cancer and other diseases that reduce respiratory function. Sadly, these conditions are often fatal.

If you or a loved one has been exposed to asbestos, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with some of the most common asbestos-related diseases, symptoms to watch out for, and factors that can increase your risk of developing an illness. Following, you'll find an overview of the basics you need to know.  

Asbestos-Related Diseases

Long-term asbestos exposure has been shown to increase the risk of developing mesothelioma, lung cancer, and several other non-cancerous diseases and conditions. 

Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma is a very aggressive form of cancer that is usually fatal. It typically develops in the lung, abdominal, and/or heart cavities. While this disease is fairly rare in the general population, it’s far more common among workers who have been exposed to asbestos and members of their household. Asbestos exposure accounts for up to 80% of all mesothelioma cases.

Symptoms of mesothelioma typically don’t develop for 30 to 40 years after asbestos exposure. While a mesothelioma diagnosis is often fatal within as little as a few months, survival time may also be influenced by the amount of asbestos you were exposed to. Early diagnosis and intervention may also increase survival time.

Lung Cancer and Other Cancers

While smoking tobacco contributes to approximately 80% of lung cancer cases, asbestos exposure can also lead to lung cancer. Mesothelioma develops in the lining of the lungs, while lung cancer is generally a tumor that develops in the lung itself. Asbestos-related lung cancer typically develops within 10 to 40 years after exposure.

Other forms of cancer have also been linked with asbestos exposure. This includes cancer of the larynx, pharynx, stomach, colorectum, and ovaries. 

Pleural Abnormalities

There are four primary types of asbestos-related non-cancerous abnormalities that can affect the pleura (the lining of the chest cavity). This includes:

  • Fibrosis and diffuse thickening of the pleura
  • Pleural plaques (localized deposits of collagen)
  • Rounded atelectasis (folded lung)
  • Pleural effusion (fluid in the pleural space)

These types of abnormalities occur in approximately up to 60% of workers who have been exposed to asbestos. They are also more common among household members, possibly due to the inhalation of fibers that were brought home on the worker’s clothes.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that causes scar-like tissue, known as pulmonary fibrosis, to form in the lungs. This often leads to shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough, and chest tightness or pain. Symptoms can range from mild to severe.

This illness typically occurs after being exposed to asbestos for several years and may take anywhere from five to ten years or longer to develop. The condition sometimes does not progress any further after it has been diagnosed. However, in some individuals, it may develop and progress quickly.

Symptoms of Asbestos-Related Disease

It’s important to remember that you may not develop any symptoms of asbestos-related disease for 10 to 40 years after you’ve been exposed. Some of the primary symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in your chest or abdomen
  • Persistent coughing or change in cough patterns
  • Coughing up blood
  • Significant weight loss
  • Swelling in the face or neck
  • Persistent hoarseness or difficulty swallowing
  • Chronic respiratory infections
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent fatigue

If you develop any of these symptoms, be sure to let your healthcare provider know that you have a history of asbestos exposure. This will allow them to complete the appropriate diagnostic testing so to confirm or rule out asbestos-related conditions. 

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you believe you may have an asbestos-related condition, it’s important to visit your healthcare provider right away. Your provider is likely to provide a full physical exam that may include a chest x-ray, pulmonary (lung) function tests, and lab tests to measure the presence of asbestos material in your body. Depending on your results, your physician may also recommend a CT scan, bronchoscopy, and/or a pleural or lung biopsy.

Once you’re diagnosed, the treatment will depend on your condition and how the asbestos has affected your lungs. You may need to have fluid drained from your lungs and receive oxygen therapy to help with breathing problems, shortness of breath, and low blood oxygen levels. If you’ve developed mesothelioma or lung cancer, your healthcare provider may also recommend radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, and/or immunotherapy. While aggressive treatments focus on killing or removing tumors and cancer cells, palliative therapies can help ease pain, control symptoms, and improve your quality of life.

Additional Risk Factors

While asbestos-related conditions are very serious, it’s also important to remember that contact with asbestos does not always lead to health problems. Risk factors that may influence the development of disease include:

  • How often you were exposed, and for how long
  • How much asbestos was in the air
  • The length of time since exposure occurred
  • Whether you already have breathing or lung conditions
  • Whether you smoke tobacco

If you are concerned about your past asbestos exposure, it’s a good idea to have regular medical exams, as this can help with early detection. If you currently smoke, consider quitting. Also plan to get regular vaccinations against the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia. Taking these steps may help you avoid developing additional health problems that could exacerbate your condition.

What to Do if You Develop an Asbestos-Related Illness

If you’ve developed an asbestos-related medical condition, it’s critical to take care of your health first and foremost. You may also consider contacting a mesothelioma lawyer to discuss your options for pursuing benefits and compensation. Your settlement could help pay for your medical treatments and provide your loved ones with financial protection. Contact us today to schedule a free case evaluation.

Category