Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

The effects of long-term exposure to asbestos typically don't show up for 10 to 40 years after initial exposure. Asbestosis signs and symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A persistent, dry cough
  • Loss of appetite with weight loss
  • Fingertips and toes that appear wider and rounder than normal (clubbing)
  • Chest tightness or pain

When to see a doctor

If you have a history of exposure to asbestos and you're experiencing increasing shortness of breath, talk to your doctor about the possibility of asbestosis.

Causes

If you are exposed to high levels of asbestos dust over a long period of time, some of the airborne fibers can become lodged within your alveoli — the tiny sacs inside your lungs where oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide in your blood. The asbestos fibers irritate and scar lung tissue, causing the lungs to become stiff. This makes it difficult to breathe.

As asbestosis progresses, more and more lung tissue becomes scarred. Eventually, your lung tissue becomes so stiff that it can't contract and expand normally.

Smoking cigarettes appears to increase the retention of asbestos fibers in the lungs, and often results in a faster progression of the disease.

Risk factors

People who worked in mining, milling, manufacturing, installation or removal of asbestos products before the late 1970s are at risk of asbestosis. Examples include:

  • Asbestos miners
  • Aircraft and auto mechanics
  • Boiler operators
  • Building construction workers
  • Electricians
  • Railroad workers
  • Shipyard workers
  • Workers removing asbestos insulation around steam pipes in older buildings

In general, it's safe to be around materials that are made with asbestos as long as the asbestos fibers are contained. This prevents them from getting into the air.

Complications

If you have asbestosis, you're at increased risk of developing lung cancer — especially if you smoke or have a history of smoking.