What Is Asbestosis? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Adithya Cattamanchi, M.D.
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Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition that occurs as a result of long-term exposure to asbestos. Symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and chest pain can take 10–40 years to appear following exposure to asbestos. Asbestosis is one of the most common types of pneumoconiosis. It is usually an occupational condition that typically affects people who have worked in building and construction.

Read on to find out more about asbestosis. This guide includes information about how to recognize symptoms, what causes asbestosis, how to treat the condition, and more.

Asbestosis definition

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that develops over time from long-term inhalation of asbestos fibers. It most commonly affects people who work in the building, construction, and other industries where there is frequent exposure to asbestos.

What are the symptoms of asbestosis?

There is a closeup of asbestos.
Alexey Emelyanov/Getty Images

According to the American Lung Association, it can take from 10–40 years following exposure to asbestos for symptoms to appear. When you do experience symptoms, they can include:

Find out more about respiratory symptoms.

What causes asbestosis?

Asbestosis is typically an occupational lung disease that occurs following prolonged exposure to asbestos. Inhaling high levels of asbestos fibers and dust can irritate the lung tissue.

Fibers can become trapped in the alveoli, which are the air sacs in the lungs and end of the airways. Over time, this can scar the lungs. This means that your lungs become stiff and are unable to expand as they should.

If you smoke, this can increase the damage that results from inhaling asbestos fibers. This can make asbestosis quicker to progress.

Learn more about the causes of pneumoconiosis.

What are the risk factors for asbestosis?

You may be at risk of asbestosis if you work or have worked with asbestos, particularly before the late 1970s.

In particular, you may be at risk of asbestosis if you have worked in the following industries:

  • asbestos removal
  • construction work
  • electrical work
  • installation
  • manufacturing
  • mining
  • plumbing
  • firefighting
  • industrial and power plant work
  • shipyard work

Many homes built before 1977 contain asbestos in materials such as floor tiles, popcorn ceilings, and pipes. If the fibers are contained then this should not be harmful, as asbestosis occurs only from the inhalation of asbestos dust or fibers.

However, it is important to seek medical advice if you have concerns about asbestosis.

What are the treatments for asbestosis?

It is not possible to reverse the damage from the prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers. Treatment focuses on alleviating symptoms and slowing down the progression of the condition.

Possible treatments for asbestosis include:

  • oxygen therapy
  • pulmonary rehabilitation to help you to stay active, which typically lasts for around 8 weeks
  • lung transplant in severe cases

When should I contact a doctor?

It is important to contact your doctor as soon as you have concerns about asbestosis.

In particular, if you worked with asbestos before the late 1970s, you should contact your doctor for advice. They will be able to carry out tests and advice on any necessary treatments.

How do doctors diagnose asbestosis?

To assist with diagnosing asbestosis, your doctor may take a full medical history and carry out a physical examination.

If they suspect asbestosis, they may also ask you questions about your exposure to asbestosis, such as:

  • How long did you spend working with asbestos?
  • What was the nature of the work you carried out?
  • What products were you in contact with?
  • Did you wear protective equipment during your work?

Asbestosis testing

Your doctor may arrange for tests to help to confirm the cause of your symptoms. Possible tests they may carry out if they suspect asbestosis include:

Your doctor will be able to explain to you what each test involves.

Learn about what to expect during a chest X-ray.

What is the life expectancy for somebody with asbestosis?

Unless you experience severe asbestosis, the condition may not directly impact your life expectancy.

However, having asbestosis increases your risk of mesothelioma and lung cancer. These can reduce your life expectancy.

It is important to contact your doctor as soon as you have concerns about asbestosis. They can conduct tests to reach an accurate diagnosis.

Following diagnosis of asbestosis, your doctor will be able to recommend any necessary treatments to help with slowing down the progression of the condition.

Can asbestosis lead to cancer?

Having asbestosis may increase your risk of lung cancer. Learn about lung cancer.

Exposure to asbestos may also increase your risk of mesothelioma. This cancer can affect the lungs, chest, or abdomen. Learn more about mesothelioma.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about asbestosis or cancer.

What are the complications of asbestosis?

Having asbestosis increases your risk of conditions such as:

  • pleural disease
  • mesothelioma
  • lung cancer

Receiving an accurate diagnosis and beginning treatment as early as possible can help reduce the risk of complications.

Can I prevent asbestosis?

If you have worked with asbestos, it may not be possible to prevent asbestosis. It can take many years for symptoms to appear.

However, you can take steps to help reduce the severity of your symptoms, such as:

  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • taking short rests during the day when needed
  • ensuring you get enough sleep
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • washing your hands regularly to reduce the risk of infection
  • getting your flu and pneumonia vaccines
  • avoiding areas where air pollution and pollen counts are high
  • not breathing in pollutants such as secondhand smoke, aerosol sprays, and traffic fumes
  • preventing breathing in cold air by keeping your mouth covered when outdoors in winter

Summary

Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition. It typically occurs following the prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers. Asbestosis is often an occupational lung disease.

If you receive an asbestosis diagnosis, your doctor may recommend treatments such as oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation. Treatments focus on alleviating symptoms and slowing the condition’s progression.

Symptoms of asbestosis may not occur for 10–40 years following asbestos exposure. It is important to contact your doctor as soon as you have concerns about asbestosis. They can conduct tests to reach an accurate diagnosis.

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Medical Reviewer: Adithya Cattamanchi, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 30
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