Diagnosis

Asbestosis can be difficult to diagnose because its signs and symptoms are similar to those of many other types of respiratory diseases.

Physical exam

As part of your evaluation, your doctor discusses your health history, occupation and exposure risk to asbestos. During a physical exam, your doctor uses a stethoscope to listen carefully to your lungs to determine if they make a crackling sound while inhaling.

A variety of diagnostic tests might be needed to help pinpoint the diagnosis.

Imaging tests

These tests show images of your lungs:

  • Chest X-ray. Advanced asbestosis appears as excessive whiteness in your lung tissue. If the asbestosis is severe, the tissue in both lungs might be affected, giving them a honeycomb appearance.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan. CT scans combine a series of X-ray views taken from many different angles to produce cross-sectional images of the bones and soft tissues inside your body. These scans generally provide greater detail and might help detect asbestosis in its early stages, even before it shows up on a chest X-ray.

Pulmonary function tests

These tests determine how well your lungs are functioning. Pulmonary function tests measure how much air your lungs can hold and the airflow in and out of your lungs.

During the test, you might be asked to blow as hard as you can into an air-measurement device called a spirometer. More-complete pulmonary function tests can measure the amount of oxygen being transferred to your bloodstream.

Diagnostic procedures

In some situations, your doctor might remove fluid and tissue for testing to identify asbestos fibers or abnormal cells. Tests may include:

  • Bronchoscopy. A thin tube (bronchoscope) is passed through your nose or mouth, down your throat and into your lungs. A light and a small camera on the bronchoscope allow the doctor to look inside your lungs' airways for any abnormalities or to get a fluid or tissue sample (biopsy) if needed.
  • Thoracentesis. In this procedure, your doctor injects a local anesthetic and then inserts a needle through your chest wall between your ribs and lungs to remove excess fluid for lab analysis and to help you breathe better. Your doctor might insert the needle with the help of ultrasound guidance.

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Treatment

There's no treatment to reverse the effects of asbestos on the alveoli. Treatment focuses on slowing the progression of the disease, relieving symptoms and preventing complications.

You'll need routine follow-up care, such as chest X-rays or CT scans and lung function tests, at regular intervals depending on the severity of your condition.

Therapy

To ease breathing difficulty caused by advanced asbestosis, your doctor might prescribe supplemental oxygen. This is delivered by thin plastic tubing with prongs that fit into your nostrils or thin tubing connected to a mask worn over your nose and mouth.

Participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation program may help some people. The program offers educational and exercise components such as breathing and relaxation techniques, ways to improve physical activity habits, and education to improve overall health.

Surgery

If your symptoms are severe, you might be a candidate for a lung transplant.

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Lifestyle and home remedies

In addition to medical treatment:

  • Don't smoke. Asbestosis increases the risk of lung cancer. Quitting smoking can reduce this risk. Try to avoid secondhand smoke. Smoking may also cause more damage to your lungs and airways, which further reduces your lung reserves.
  • Get vaccinated. Talk to your doctor about flu and pneumonia vaccines, which can help lower your risk of lung infections. Promptly treat respiratory infections.
  • Avoid further asbestos exposure. Further exposure to asbestos can worsen your condition.

Preparing for your appointment

You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor for the disorder's most common symptom — shortness of breath. He or she might refer you to a doctor specializing in lung problems (pulmonologist).

You might want to have a friend or family member accompany you to your appointment. Often, two sets of ears are better than one when you're learning about a complicated medical problem, such as asbestosis. Take notes if this helps.

What you can do

Before your appointment, you might want to prepare answers to the following questions:

  • What are your symptoms and when did they start?
  • Have your symptoms stayed the same or gotten worse?
  • What kind of work have you done in your career? Be specific.
  • Have you been involved in any home-remodeling projects or other building renovations occurring over a long period of time?
  • Do you or did you smoke? If so, how much?
  • What medications (prescription and over-the-counter), vitamins, herbs and other supplements do you take, and the dosages?

If you've had chest X-rays in the past, bring along copies of the images so your doctor can compare them to your current imaging tests.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:

  • Are you aware of any exposure to asbestos?
  • Do you get short of breath easily?
  • How long have you had a cough?
  • Have you noticed any wheezing when you breathe?
  • Do you or have you ever smoked? If so, would you like help in quitting smoking?

Your doctor will ask additional questions based on your responses, symptoms and needs. Preparing and anticipating questions will help you make the most of your time with the doctor.

Dec. 27, 2019
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