Asbestosis

The Facts

Asbestosis is a harmful lung condition that develops in people who have inhaled asbestos dust. When someone inhales the dust, the microscopic asbestos fibers settle in the lungs, where they cause permanent lung damage as well as chronic breathing symptoms.

One of the unusual things about asbestosis is the long "lag-time" between asbestos exposure and the resulting illness. For example, a year of exposure in youth may not cause symptoms until 30 years later.

Once someone develops asbestosis, there is no cure. Breathing problems will get steadily worse, and in about 15% of people, severe shortness of breath and respiratory failure develop. For someone who smokes and has had asbestos exposure, there is a greatly increased chance of developing lung cancer. Symptoms may appear within 10 years of the initial exposure.

Lung transplantation is the only way to manage end-stage asbestos lung disease, and most people who need it are not eligible candidates because of their advanced age or due to other medical problems.

Causes

Asbestosis is what doctors call an occupational lung disease, caused by inhaling harmful particles while at work. Diseases due to chronic inhalation of mineral dusts are called pneumoconiosis. The kind of lung disease or pneumoconiosis that develops depends on the size and kind of particles someone keeps breathing in. Fortunately, the body is able to get rid of most inhaled particles. Special cells in the lungs engulf them and make them harmless. But some particles like asbestos cause damage that can't be reversed.

Asbestos is the term for a group of minerals used in many industries. They are categorized based on their shape. Long, straight, rod-like asbestos fibers seem to be a greater health hazard than long, curly fibers. When inhaled into the lungs, asbestos fibers cause scars (pulmonary fibrosis) and may restrict lung movements (restrictive lung disease). Breathing in asbestos can also cause the two membranes covering your lungs (the pleura) to thicken.

The more you are exposed to asbestos fibers, the greater your risk of developing asbestosis or other asbestos-related conditions. You can be at risk for asbestos exposure if you work as a janitor, welder, electrician, plumber, construction worker, carpenter, boilermaker, insulation installer, shipbuilder, miner, railway worker, or if you're involved in textile manufacturing. Construction work; demolition; renovation; and jobs that require the cutting, filing, sanding, or scraping of asbestos-containing materials may all put you at a high risk.

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The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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