Asbestosis is the scarring of lung tissue resulting from the inhalation of asbestos fibers. When lung tissue is scarred, it does not expand and contract like healthy tissue which makes breathing difficult and painful. Asbestosis is a chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease that can cause shortness of breath and an increased risk of developing cancerous conditions including mesothelioma and lung cancer. Like mesothelioma, asbestosis is caused by asbestos particles that are inhaled and become embedded in the lungs. It can take years or decades after inhalation of asbestos particles for patients to develop asbestosis. Generally, asbestosis is caused by intense or long-term exposure to asbestos.
Symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Chest pain
- Coughing up blood
- Fluid buildup in the lungs
- High blood pressure and/or congestive heart disease
- Hoarse voice
- Respiratory infection
- Moderate to severe shortness of breath
- Swelling of the fingers and/or other extremities
- Unexplained weight loss
Asbestosis is usually diagnosed using X-Rays, CT scans, and blood tests. Other tests may be performed to analyze pulmonary function, or how efficiently the lungs are working. There is no cure for asbestosis, but prompt and careful treatment can slow the disease’s progression and relieve symptoms. Oxygen therapy can also help relieve shortness of breath. Because patients with asbestosis are at a heightened risk for developing mesothelioma and other deadly cancers, they must be monitored and tested regularly.
Asbestos exposure heightens the risk of developing lung cancer, and individuals who smoked and were exposed to asbestos have a higher risk for contracting this disease. While about a quarter of all lung cancer victims show no symptoms of the disease before diagnosis, many others do experience warning signs. These can include bronchitis or phenomena, chest pain, coughing/wheezing, fatigue, hoarse voice, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, and unexplained weight loss. These symptoms can also indicate less severe conditions, which may cause patients to put off medical treatment and lose valuable treatment time in the process. Like mesothelioma, lung cancer can metastasize and spread to other parts of the body negatively impacting treatment options and a patient's prognosis.
For individuals with a history of asbestos exposure, even the mildest symptom must be taken seriously and discussed with a doctor. If lung cancer or another disease is suspected, a chest x-ray is typically the first test performed. In many lung cancer cases, one or more nodules, or even a large mass, will be seen. Then a CT scan or MRI of the chest, which show the lungs in three dimensions, may be ordered to help doctors determine the stage, or severity, of the cancer. These tests can also show if tumors have spread into the lymph nodes or other organs. A biopsy, or extraction and examination of a small piece of tumor tissue, will also be performed. By examining the cells under a microscope, a pathologist can learn more about the cancer type and severity and give the patient more information about their outlook. Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment options can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and fluid removal.