Overview

Asbestosis (as-bes-TOE-sis) is a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Prolonged exposure to these fibers can cause lung tissue scarring and shortness of breath. Asbestosis symptoms can range from mild to severe, and usually don't appear until many years after continued exposure.

Asbestos is a natural mineral product that's resistant to heat and corrosion. It was used extensively in the past in products such as insulation, cement and some floor tiles.

Most people with asbestosis acquired it on the job before the federal government began regulating the use of asbestos and asbestos products in the 1970s. Today, its handling is strictly regulated. Acquiring asbestosis is extremely unlikely if you follow your employer's safety procedures. Treatment focuses on relieving your symptoms.

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.

Prevention

Reducing exposure to asbestos is the best prevention against asbestosis. In the United States, federal law requires employers in industries that work with asbestos products — such as construction — to take special safety measures.

Many homes built before the 1970s have materials such as pipes and floor tiles that contain asbestos. Generally, there's no cause for concern as long as the asbestos is enclosed and undisturbed. It's when materials containing asbestos are damaged that there's a danger of asbestos fibers being released into the air.

Aug. 12, 2017
References
  1. What are asbestos-related lung diseases? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/asb/asb_all.html. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  2. Asbestosis. AskMayoExpert. Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2016.
  3. Learn about asbestos. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/learn-about-asbestos#asbestos. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  4. Broaddus VC, et al., eds. Pneumoconioses. In: Murray & Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2016. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  5. Goldman L, et al., eds. Occupational lung disease. In: Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2016. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  6. King TE. Asbestosis. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  7. Sen R. Working with asbestos and the possible health risks. Occupational Medicine. 2015;65:6.
  8. Roggli VL, et al. Pathology of asbestosis — An update of the diagnostic criteria: Report of the asbestosis committee of the College of American Pathologists and Pulmonary Pathology Society. Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. 2010;134:462.
  9. Ferri FF. Asbestosis. In: Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2017. Philadelphia, Pa.: Mosby Elsevier; 2016. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  10. What is COPD? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Copd/Copd_WhatIs.html. Accessed June 17, 2016.