Asbestosis, like mesothelioma, is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers when asbestos is in dust form. In asbestosis, these fibers make their way to the lungs and become embedded in the inner tissue. The tissue then scars causing fibrosis. Once the tissue begins to scar, it then starts to harden which stops the flow of oxygen; making it hard for the victim to breathe. It can take between 10 and 40 years to develop asbestosis. Asbestosis can lead to the development of mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Signs and Symptoms
Asbestosis is a chronic disease with symptoms ranging from mild to severe after a significant amount of time (10 to 40 years) has passed.
One of the most common symptoms of asbestosis is shortness of breath, gradually becoming worse as the scarred tissue in the lungs begins to harden. Other signs and symptoms include:
- Persistent dry cough
- Tightness in Chest
- Chest pain
- Weight Loss
- Loss of appetite
- Crackling sound in lungs when breathing in
One of the more unusual symptoms of asbestosis is called finger clubbing, in which fingers and toes become wider and rounder. It is not entirely certain what causes finger clubbing, but researchers believe that when certain components in the blood become activated, it interferes with the nail bed. The tissue under the nail plate becomes thicker causing the nail to widen. Finger clubbing occurs in other lung diseases as well, such as lung cancer, cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis, and bronchiectasis. Maintaining oxygen levels in the blood can help to prevent clubbing.
The following techniques are used in diagnosing asbestosis:
- Chest X-ray
- An imaging test that uses electromagnetic waves to create pictures of the heart, lungs, and chest wall.
- CT Scan
- (Computerized tomography) - X-ray-type images create 3-D pictures from different angles. These pictures are then combined to determine where abnormalities are in the body.
- Pulmonary Function Test (lung function test)
- This is an overarching term that measures how well the lungs work and other matters such as lung size and air flow. The following are specific types of lung function tests:
- Spirometry Test: The patient will breathe both heavily and lightly into a tube called a spirometer that is connected to a computer. The purpose of this test is to measure air flow and lung size.
- Plethysmography: The patient is placed either sitting or standing in a small room with clear walls. This test measures how much air the lung can hold; TLC (total lung capacity).
- Arterial Blood Gas Test: Measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream.
- Carbon Monoxide Diffusion Capacity: Measures how well the lungs transfer carbon monoxide to the blood.
- Pulse Oximetry: Also measures oxygen levels in the blood by using the patient’s pulse.
- Fractional Exhaled Nitric Oxide Test: a test commonly used for asthma, patients breathe into a tube that is connected to a machine that will measure nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide is naturally produced in the body that helps fight inflammation and relax constricted muscles.
- A biopsy is a common procedure used to remove small pieces of tissue to be examined under a microscope.
There is no cure for asbestosis, but unlike mesothelioma, asbestosis can be managed by slowing down the progression of the disease. Below are some common steps to follow to reduce symptoms:
- Quit Smoking
- Smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer, and those who have been exposed to asbestos as well are more likely to develop lung cancer or mesothelioma. The chemicals from the cigarettes are more harmful to the already weakened and vulnerable lungs.
- Influenza and pneumonia vaccinations
- Getting the influenza and pneumonia vaccinations will not treat asbestosis, but since the lung are more vulnerable, there is a higher risk of developing an infection. Illnesses such as these can be worse in a person who has asbestosis.
- Oxygen Therapy
- In severe cases of asbestosis, oxygen may not be distributed throughout the body, so the patient is provided with a machine that purifies the oxygen in the air, making it more oxygen rich. The patient then wears a mask or has a tube placed in the nostrils to breathe in the air. Some patients may be given an oxygen tank and mask to use when outside of the house.
Managing a healthy life-style can improve the quality of life if you are diagnosed with asbestosis. Those living with the disease should maintain a balanced diet, get enough rest, try to exercise regularly, and be mindful to prevent infections (wash hands regularly, avoid large crowds and exposure to contaminated air).
Asbestosis is not a cancer, so those diagnosed with the disease can live many years with the condition. However, asbestosis could lead to conditions such as lung cancer or mesothelioma since the condition will worsen over time. Increased treatment will be required the longer the patient has the disease.
National Health Institute, “Pulmonary Function Tests” Department of Health and Human Services (December 9, 2016). [Link]
American Lung Association, “Lung Health & Diseases; Asbestosis.” [Link]