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Lahey Health is now part of Beth Israel Lahey Health

by EBSCO Medical Review Board

Definition

Asbestosis lung inflammation and scarring from breathing in asbestos fibers. Asbestos is a mineral used to strengthen and fireproof materials.

Causes

Asbestosis is caused by breathing in air that has asbestos fibers in it. The fibers become trapped in the lungs and cause scarring and inflammation. This makes it hard for the lungs to work as they should.

Thickening and Scarring of Lung Tissue
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Risk Factors

This problem is more common in people who are regularly exposed to asbestos, such as:

  • Workers who mine or process asbestos
  • Construction workers
  • Shipyard workers
  • Vehicle mechanics
  • People who work at sites where asbestos is found
  • People who live with a person who works with asbestos

People who smoke are at greater risk.

Symptoms

Asbestosis takes a long time to develop. The earliest symptoms usually show up 10 to 40 years after a person is exposed.

The problems a person has depends on the amount and length of time a person was exposed. Symptoms get worse over time and may include:

  • Problems breathing, such as shortness of breath and wheezing
  • A dry, lasting cough
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Lack of hunger
  • Weight loss
  • Finger clubbing due to a build-up of fluid

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. You will be asked about your history of exposure to asbestos. A physical exam will be done.

Images may be taken of the lungs. This can be done with:

A pulmonary function test may also be done to measure how well the lungs take in and exhale air.

Treatment

There is no cure. You will need to be monitored for any changes by a doctor who treats lung diseases.

The goal is to slow the disease and manage symptoms. Choices are:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as:
    • Not smoking
    • Avoiding further exposure to asbestos
    • Getting vaccinated for flu and pneumonia
  • Breathing support, such as oxygen therapy
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation to learn breathing and relaxation methods

Prevention

The use of asbestos has been banned in many countries. The risk of this problem may be lowered by:

  • Avoiding air that has asbestos fibers in it
  • Wearing a mask or respirator on the job to avoid breathing in air that has asbestos in it
  • Working in well-ventilated areas

RESOURCES

American Cancer Society  http://www.cancer.org 

Occupational Safety and Health Administration  http://www.osha.gov 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety  http://www.ccohs.ca 

The Lung Association  http://www.lung.ca 

References

Asbestos exposure and cancer risk. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet. Accessed November 23, 2020.

Asbestos-related benign pulmonary disease. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/asbestos-related-benign-pulmonary-disease. Accessed November 23, 2020.

Prazakova S, Thomas PS, et al. Asbestos and the lung in the 21st century: an update. Clin Respir J. 2014 Jan;8(1):1-10.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
  • Review Date: 09/2020
  • Update Date: 04/16/2021