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Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a lung disease that occurs from breathing in asbestos fibers.

Causes

Breathing in asbestos fibers can cause scar tissue (fibrosis) to form inside the lung. Scarred lung tissue does not expand and contract normally.

How severe the disease is depends on how long the person was exposed to asbestos and the amount he or she breathed in. Often, people do not notice symptoms for 20 years or more after the asbestos exposure.

Asbestos fibers were commonly used in construction before 1975. Asbestos exposure occurred in asbestos mining and milling, construction, fireproofing, and other industries. Families of asbestos workers can also be exposed from particles brought home on the worker's clothing.

Other asbestos-related diseases include:

  • Pleural plaques (calcification)
  • Malignant mesothelioma (cancer of the pleura, the lining of the lung), which can develop 20 to 40 years after exposure
  • Pleural effusion, which is a collection that develops around the lung a few years after asbestos exposure
  • Lung cancer

Workers today are less likely to get asbestos-related diseases because of government regulations.

Cigarette smoking increases the risk of getting asbestos-related diseases.

Symptoms

Possible other symptoms include:

Exams and Tests

When listening to the chest with a stethoscope (auscultation), the doctor may hear a crackling sound called rales.

These tests may help diagnose the disease:

Treatment

There is no cure. Stopping exposure to asbestos is essential. To ease symptoms, drainage, chest percussion, and vibration can help remove fluids from the lungs.

The doctor may prescribe aerosol medications to thin lung fluids. People with this condition may need to receive oxygen by mask or by a plastic piece that fits into the nostrils. Certain patients may need a lung transplant.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of this illness by joining a lung support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Outcome depends on the amount of asbestos you were exposed to and the length of the exposure period.

Patients who develop malignant mesothelioma tend to have a poor outcome. About 75% of those who are affected die within 1 year.

Possible Complications

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you suspect that you've been exposed to asbestos or if you have unexplained symptoms.

Prevention

In people who have been exposed to asbestos for more than 10 years, screening with a chest x-ray every 3 to 5 years may detect asbestos-related diseases early. Stopping cigarette smoking can dramatically reduce the risk of asbestos-related lung cancer.

Alternative Names

Pulmonary fibrosis - from asbestos exposure; Interstitial pneumonitis - from asbestos exposure

References

Cowie RL, Murray J, Becklake MR. Pneumoconioses. In: Mason RJ, Murray JF, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 65.

Tarlo SM. Occupational lung disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 93.

Update Date: 5/30/2013

Updated by: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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