Because asbestos occurs naturally in the environment, everyone breathes in some asbestos fibers. Usually, these are expelled before they reach the deeper areas of your lungs, but even if they do, a few fibers won’t create signs and symptoms of asbestosis.
People most at risk of developing asbestosis are those who are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos for long periods of time, such as workers who were involved in the mining, milling, manufacturing, installation or removal of asbestos products. Most cases of asbestosis occur at least 10 years after the person’s first exposure to asbestos.
Diagnostic imaging equipment such as x-rays and CT scans can show scarring and thickening of lung tissue. If the scar tissue reduces the functioning of the lungs. Asbestosis can also be detected by a breathing or pulmonary function test (PFT). Diagnosis can be made when there is a history of asbestos exposure and positive results from chest x-rays or CT scans. A clinical exam, a pulmonary function test and/or other clinical findings can aid in the diagnosis.
Treatment and Prognosis
Currently, there is no cure or effective treatment for Asbestosis. People who have Asbestosis are also at high risk for developing lung cancer or Mesothelioma. Although Asbestosis is an incurable lung disease, patients are able to live with the condition for many years without succumbing to its secondary effects. Palliative Asbestosis treatments can help to limit the effects of the disease and improve sufferers’ day-to-day lives; however, scarring of the lung tissue is an irreversible problem that will forever hamper Asbestosis patients.
The severity of asbestosis is generally related to the amount and duration of exposure to asbestos. Effects of the disease may be so mild as to cause almost no symptoms. Or the condition may create such a reduced flow of oxygen as to be disabling or even fatal. Asbestosis may lead to the following conditions:
High blood pressure in your lungs. Asbestosis-related scar tissue may eventually compress or obliterate your lungs’ small blood vessels, causing high blood pressure in your lungs’ arteries (pulmonary hypertension).
Heart problems. Pulmonary hypertension can lead to enlargement and failure of your heart’s right ventricle (cor pulmonale). Your heart consists of four chambers — two upper chambers called atria and two lower chambers called ventricles. Your right ventricle assists in pumping oxygen-poor blood from your organs and tissues to your lungs, where your blood receives a new boost of oxygen. As your pulmonary arteries narrow, your heart’s right ventricle must work harder to pump blood through your lungs. Initially, your heart tries to compensate by thickening its walls and dilating the right ventricle to increase the amount of blood it can hold. But this measure only works temporarily, and eventually — after a period of a few years — the right ventricle weakens and fails from the extra strain.
Lung cancer. If you smoke and have asbestosis, your chance of developing lung cancer increases greatly, especially if you smoke more than a pack of cigarettes a day. Tobacco smoke and asbestos both contribute to each other’s cancer-causing (carcinogenic) effects, so that the combination of both risk factors together is more dangerous than the effects of either risk factor alone.
Other lung damage. Exposure to asbestos can lead to other health complications, including changes in the thin membranes covering your lungs and lining your chest cavity (pleural membranes). Pleural changes may be the first signs of asbestos exposure and may include pleural thickening, the formation of calcium deposits in the pleura (plaques), and an abnormal accumulation of fluid between the membranes (pleural effusion).
Other cancer. People exposed to asbestos at an early age, for a long period of time or at high levels are at increased risk of malignant mesothelioma. Diagnosis and treatment of this cancer is often difficult. Malignant mesothelioma takes many years to develop. Most people with this condition were first exposed to asbestos at least 15 years — and sometimes as long as 50 years – prior to their diagnosis.