Asbestosis is a chronic, progressive lung disease characterised by scarring of lung tissues. Although the condition is non-malignant, it is degenerative and incurable, often leading to long-term breathing complications. Moreover, it may also act as a pre-cursor to the onset of mesothelioma.
Asbestosis is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos. The extent and duration of the exposure are key factors that determine how the individual will be affected. The type of asbestos and where it came from also play a part in influencing the type and severity of the symptoms.
In some people asbestosis can develop fully in as few as seven years. In others it could take twenty to thirty years or even more before the symptoms first become noticeable.
Asbestos is widely used in several industries from shipbuilding and construction to roofing, mining and refineries. All workers who are employed in these industries are at higher risk of developing asbestosis and other asbestos related diseases. Those who served in the military too are considered high risk for this condition because of the extensive use of asbestos in vehicles and safety gear.
Respiratory problems are the primary symptoms of asbestosis.
Anyone who has developed asbestosis may experience any or all of these respiratory conditions:
- Shortness of breath
- Lower tolerance for physical exertion
- Persistent coughing accompanied by chest pain
- Crackling sound when breathing
Non-respiratory symptoms could include:
- Swelling in the neck or face
- High blood pressure
- Difficulty swallowing
- Finger deformity
- Blood in the sputum
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
The severity of the symptoms is often related to the amount and length of asbestos exposure. In the early stages of the disease, shortness of breath and fatigue are evident while engaging in any type of physical activity.
As the condition progresses, the shortness of breath and fatigue increase in severity and doing even minimum physical activity can often become a major issue.
What Causes The Symptoms
When asbestos is inhaled, the thin, long fibres settle in the lungs and embed themselves to the pleura or the lung lining.
As the lungs become scarred and inflamed by the embedded fibres, their ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide gets hampered, resulting in restricted lung function.
As the disease progresses, it sets in motion a cycle of conditions. The persistent lack of oxygen places a huge amount of stress on the heart, forcing it to pump blood at a faster rate than is normal. This is the reason why it is not uncommon for someone with this condition to die from heart failure.
The increase in blood pressure increases fluid build up around the heart and lungs, resulting in swelling in the neck and face, which in turns makes it difficult to swallow.
Fluids can also build up in the abdomen, creating tenderness and bloating, which can lead to loss of appetite and loss of weight for no apparent reason.
In advanced cases, if the fluid retention is untreated, it could lead to finger deformity, known as clubbing.
Diagnostic Process to Confirm Asbestosis
The respiratory symptoms are usually severe enough for someone with asbestosis to seek medical help.
Before doing any kind of invasive test, the doctor will first ask you details about your work history to determine whether or not you are at high risk. Most people who have been diagnosed with this condition came into contact with asbestos at their place of work. The doctor will want to monitor you more closely if you at any time worked in any type of work setting where asbestos was used.
In most cases the doctor will not confirm a diagnosis of asbestosis until imaging scans reveal definite structural changes to the lungs. Signs of pleural plaques, scarring and pleural thickening scarring are all indicators that asbestosis may be present. In addition, the presence of asbestos fibres in the lung tissue also helps lead to an absolute diagnosis.
Some of the more common diagnostic tools used to diagnose asbestosis include a stethoscope, chest X-ray, bronchoscopy, CT Scan and Pulmonary Function test. Your doctor will first use a stethoscope to listen to the sound in the lungs as you inhale and exhale. If the lungs are affected, there will be a dry, crackling sound every time you take a breath. After the preliminary physical examination, a range of tests and imaging scans may be performed before an asbestosis diagnosis can be confirmed.
Sometimes, X-rays and even CT scans fail to detect the microscopic asbestos fibres. If the doctor feels that additional testing is required you may have to undergo a biopsy in which lung tissue is surgically removed and tested. More than one test is often required to diagnose and confirm asbestosis.
Asbestosis Prognosis & Treatment Options
Asbestosis is an irreversible condition for which there is no cure. Patients diagnosed with asbestosis are about eight to ten times more likely to develop lung cancer as compared to those without asbestosis symptoms.
Treatment for asbestosis focuses on enhancing lung function and helping the patient breathe better. However there are several treatment options that can help slow down the progression and reduce the severity of the symptoms. Doctors typically prescribe breathing treatments and prescription medication for relief from the discomfort and pain.
Some of the more commonly used treatment options used include:
- Oxygen therapy to relieve shortness of breath
- Medications to relieve pain and thin secretions
- Respiratory physiotherapy that aims at removing the secretions from the lungs.
Surgery may be advisable in some cases if the other measures do not work.
With the right treatment regimen and the right precautionary measures, a person who has been diagnosed with this disease can live many years after the diagnosis.