While mesothelioma is the lethal disease most commonly identified with asbestos toxins, a more common variant that can be just as deadly is the respiratory affliction asbestosis. Inhaled asbestos fibers cause both diseases. With mesothelioma cancer the fibers have worked their way through the lung into the outer lining, or mesothelium. In the case of asbestosis, the fibers embed themselves in the inner lung tissue and cause scarring. Over time that scarring leads to fibrosis, which hardens areas of the lung tissue and reduces, or eliminates, the ability of that tissue to absorb oxygen.
Prolonged exposure to asbestos increases the risk of any disease related to asbestos fibers. In the case of asbestosis, however, it defines the severity of the disease as well. The amount of asbestos fibers in the lungs will dictate the amount of tissue that is deadened by fibrosis.
Smoking exacerbates asbestosis significantly; many of the people who develop the disease believe that the early symptoms are simply related to tobacco consumption.
- Persistent coughing that is not caused by a bronchial condition, a respiratory infection or a cold. Generally, it's a dry, hacking cough.
- Shortness of breath that is caused by diminished lung capacity. The ability to engage in physical activity is reduced accordingly.
- Chest pain caused in part by the coughing and in part by the strain on the muscles and tendons between the ribs, or by fluid accumulation.
- Clubbing of fingers which is caused by the reduced level of oxygen in the blood.
Asbestosis has a twenty to thirty five year latency period following the initial asbestos exposure that will eventually cause it to develop. Individuals who develop the disease will find the shortness of breath developing slowly along with the coughing pattern.
Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure in the lungs, caused by the fact that the tissue scarring within the lungs obliterates the small blood vessels. That condition can, in turn, lead to enlargement and failure of the heart's right ventricle, the section of the heart that pumps oxygen poor blood to the lungs. The domino effect of asbestosis can cause the development of severe cardiovascular problems.
The risk of is enhanced by multiples if you continue to smoke after the onset of asbestosis. Tobacco smoke and asbestos enhance the carcinogenic effects of one another.
Additional lung problems that are associated with the pleura, the outer lining of the lungs and the chest cavity are possible. Thickening of the pleura may lead to pleural effusion and/or the development of pleural plaques. These calcified deposits are harmless, but pleural thickening can be a precursor to the development of mesothelioma.
Scarred lung tissue cannot be repaired. However the fibrosis caused by asbestosis isn't progressive either. Once the exposure to asbestos has stopped the disease will progress to the level dictated by the amount of asbestos fiber in the lungs and stabilize. Treatment for the disease is focused on relieving the symptoms caused by reduced oxygen availability and avoiding other medical problems that may be caused by asbestosis.
- One of the primary treatment modalities is putting an end to smoking. The primary concern with the combination of asbestosis and smoking is the onset of emphysema, which will further reduce breathing capability. It may be the most difficult of all the treatment steps.
- Avoiding pulmonary disease is critical with reduced lung functionality. It is important to avoid the onset of flu or pneumonia, which may require periodic vaccination. The only way to avoid a cold is avoid exposure to people who are contagious.
- Medication may be in order if the reduced oxygen supply is leading to high blood pressure. A blood thinner and/or medication to relax constricted blood vessels may be prescribed by the treating physician.
- Pleural effusion may develop as the result of asbestosis. Accumulation of fluid between the lungs and the ribs or lungs and the diaphragm may be relieved by draining the fluid with a thoracentesis procedure.
- Oxygen therapy may be an option for periodic treatment if the lungs have reached an advanced state of deterioration.
Prognosis for Asbestosis Patients
The prognosis for individuals diagnosed with asbestosis depends on the duration and extent of their asbestos exposure as well as the progression of the disease. Some patients with asbestosis develop complications such as malignant mesothelioma and pleural effusion. Developing mesothelioma significantly decreases an individual's chances of survival. Seventy-five percent of those also diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma die within one year.
- Asbestosis, MedLine, National Library of Medicine, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000118.htm
- Asbestos and Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/NOA/Asbestos-and%20Health.pdf
- Mechanisms in the Pathogenesis of Asbestosis, American Journal of Respiratory & Critical Care Medicine, May 1998, http://ajrccm.atsjournals.org/cgi/reprint/157/5/1666
- Asbestosis Risks, The Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.com/print/asbestosis/DS00482/METHOD=print&DSECTION=all
- How Are Asbestos Lung Disease Treated? National Heart Lung & Blood Institute, http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/asb/asb_treatment.html