WHAT IS ASBESTOSIS?
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Long-term exposure to these fibers could cause lung tissue scarring and shortness of breath. Asbestosis symptoms could range from mild to severe, and usually do not appear until many years after initial exposure.
Asbestos is a natural mineral product that is impervious to heat and corrosion. It was used extensively in the past in products like insulation, cement, and some floor tiles.
Most people with asbestosis acquired it on the job before the federal government started regulating the use of asbestos and asbestos products in the 1970s. Now, its handling is strictly regulated. Getting asbestosis is extremely improbable if you follow your employer’s safety procedures. Only trained and certified asbestos professionals should manage asbestos products. Treatment concentrates on relieving your symptoms.
The effects of long-term exposure to asbestos typically do not show up until 10 to 40 years after initial exposure. Symptoms could vary in severity.
Asbestosis signs and symptoms might include:
- Shortness of breath
- A persistent, dry cough
- Chest tightness or pain
- Dry and crackling sounds in your lungs as you inhale
- Fingertips and toes that appear wider and rounder than normal (clubbing)
WHEN SHOULD YOU SEE A DOCTOR?
If you have a history of exposure to asbestos and you are experiencing increasing shortness of breath, talk to your healthcare provider about the possibility of asbestosis.
If you are exposed to high levels of asbestos dust over a long period of time, some of the airborne fibers could become lodged within your alveoli — the small sacs inside your lungs where oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. The asbestos fibers irritate and scar the lung tissue, causing the lungs to become rigid. This makes it hard to breathe.
As asbestosis disease progresses, more and more lung tissue becomes scarred. Ultimately, your lung tissue becomes so stiff that it cannot contract and expand normally.
Smoking appears to increase the retention of asbestos fibers in the lungs and often leads to a faster progression of the disease.
People who worked in mining, milling, manufacturing, and installation or removal of asbestos products before the late 1970s are at greatest risk of asbestosis. Examples include:
- Asbestos miners
- Aircraft and auto mechanics
- Boiler operators
- Building construction workers
- Railroad workers
- Refinery and mill workers
- Shipyard workers
- Workers remove asbestos insulation around steam pipes in old buildings
The risk of asbestosis is generally associated with the amount and duration of exposure to asbestos. The higher the exposure is, the higher the risk of lung damage.
Secondhand exposure is possible for household members of exposed workers, as asbestos fibers might be carried home on clothing. People living close to mines might also be exposed to asbestos fibers released into the air.
If you have asbestosis, you are at increased risk of developing lung cancer — particularly if you smoke or have a history of smoking. Rarely, malignant mesothelioma, a cancer of the tissue around the lung, can happen many years after exposure to asbestos.
Minimizing exposure to asbestos is the best prevention against asbestosis. In the United States, federal law needs employers in industries that work with asbestos products — like construction — to take special safety measures.
Many homes, schools and other buildings built before the 1970s have materials like pipes and floor tiles that contain asbestos. Generally, there is no risk of exposure as long as the asbestos is enclosed and undisturbed. It is when materials containing asbestos are damaged that there is a danger of asbestos fibers being released into the air and inhaled. Always have asbestos products inspected and repaired or removed by trained and certified asbestos professionals.
Asbestosis could be difficult to diagnose because its signs and symptoms are similar to those of many other types of respiratory diseases.
As part of your evaluation, your health care provider discusses your medical history, occupation, and exposure risk to asbestos. During a physical examination, your health care provider uses a stethoscope to listen carefully to your lungs to determine if they make a crackling sound while inhaling.
A variety of diagnostic tests may be needed to help pinpoint the diagnosis.
These tests show pictures of your lungs:
- Chest X-ray – Advanced asbestosis appears like excessive whiteness in your lung tissue. If the asbestosis is severe, the tissue in both lungs may be affected, giving them a honeycomb appearance.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan – CT scans combine a series of X-ray views taken from many different angles to produce cross-sectional pictures of the bones and soft tissues inside your body. These scans generally provide greater detail and may help detect asbestosis in its early stages, even before it shows up on a chest X-ray.
Pulmonary function tests
Pulmonary function tests determine how well your lungs are working. These tests measure how much air your lungs could hold and the airflow in and out of your lungs.
During the test, you may be asked to blow as hard as you could into an air-measurement device known as a spirometer. More-complete pulmonary function tests could measure the amount of oxygen being transferred to your bloodstream.
In some situations, your health care provider may remove fluid and tissue for testing to identify asbestos fibers or abnormal cells. Tests might include:
- Bronchoscopy – A slim tube (bronchoscope) is passed through your nose or mouth, down your throat, and into your lungs. A light and a small camera on the bronchoscope enable the doctor to look inside your lungs’ airways for any abnormalities or to get a fluid or tissue sample (biopsy) is required.
- Thoracentesis – In this procedure, your doctor administers a local anesthetic and then inserts a needle through your chest wall between your ribs and lungs to remove excess fluid for laboratory analysis and to help you breathe better. Your doctor may insert the needle with the help of ultrasound guidance.
There is no treatment to reverse the effects of asbestos on the alveoli. Treatment concentrates on slowing the progression of the disease, relieving symptoms, and preventing complications.
You will need routine follow-up care, like chest X-rays or CT scans and lung function tests, at regular intervals depending on the severity of your condition. Prompt treatment of respiratory infections could help prevent complications.
To ease breathing difficulty caused by advanced asbestosis, your healthcare provider may prescribe supplemental oxygen. This is delivered by thin plastic tubing with prongs that fit into your nostrils or thin tubing attached to a mask worn over your nose and mouth.
Participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation program might help some people. The program offers educational and exercises components like breathing and relaxation techniques, ways to improve physical activity habits, and education to improve overall health.
If your symptoms are severe, you may be a candidate for a lung transplant.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from asbestosis, our expert providers at Specialty Care Clinics will take care of your health and help you recover.