Medically Reviewed By
Karen Ritter, RN BSN
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What Is Asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a chronic respiratory disease caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. Inhaled asbestos fibers cause lung scarring and stiffness, which prevents the patient from taking full, deep breaths.
Asbestosis is a form of pulmonary fibrosis, which is scarring and damage of lung tissue. The only difference is pulmonary fibrosis is the umbrella disease that encompasses asbestosis and other types of lung scarring. Not all forms of pulmonary fibrosis are caused by asbestos exposure.
Is Asbestosis Cancer?
Asbestosis is not cancer, but it is associated with numerous malignancies. Studies have shown that asbestosis can make patients more likely to develop lung cancer in the future. Asbestosis can even lead to mesothelioma.
Although asbestosis isn’t cancer, there are long-term complications due to the permanent scarring of lung tissue. Unfortunately, there currently is no cure for asbestosis.
Many people ask “what is asbestosis?” and compare it to mesothelioma. You can learn more about asbestosis — and its relationship to mesothelioma — in our free Complete Mesothelioma Guide book.
Comparing Asbestosis and Mesothelioma
Though asbestosis and mesothelioma are both asbestos-related diseases, they are not the same. The primary difference is that asbestosis is not cancerous, while mesothelioma is a rare cancer.
The other primary differences between asbestosis and mesothelioma are:
Asbestosis and mesothelioma share many symptoms. These common mesothelioma and asbestosis symptoms, which are similar to pneumonia, include:
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent cough
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite
Mesothelioma patients often experience much more severe symptoms as their disease progresses.
There are asbestosis symptoms that don’t apply to mesothelioma. A common one is clubbing of the fingers and nails. This phenomenon is often an indication of an underlying lung or heart issue. Nails become wider, rounder and softer. Often this is a result of a lack of oxygen in your blood.
The lung tissue scarring makes it difficult to breathe, translating into less oxygen in the blood. Patients with mesothelioma may develop clubbed fingers, but it is a rarer symptom than it is for asbestosis.
Asbestosis can also contribute to cardiac issues because the lungs and heart work together. High blood pressure and heart conditions aren’t uncommon in patients with asbestosis. Heart problems, therefore, can be an indicator of asbestosis.
Diagnosing mesothelioma and diagnosing asbestosis both start with the same step: imaging tests. The first step is always an X-ray or CT (computed tomography) scan. Doctors may also ask you to undergo a breathing test, called a pulmonary function test.
Using imaging scans, doctors can identify how well your lung is functioning and look for excessive whiteness on the imaging test results. Different stages of each disease look different on the scans.
If a doctor suspects a patient could have mesothelioma, they may request additional tests (such as a PET scan or MRI) and eventually a biopsy. Diagnosing asbestosis does not require a biopsy, but doctors may recommend you have one just to rule out mesothelioma and affirm an asbestosis diagnosis.
While mesothelioma patients are generally given a prognosis of a few months to a couple of years, asbestosis has a much better outlook. Asbestosis affects every patient differently, and patients often live decades with this respiratory disease.
The primary downside of living with asbestosis is a decrease in quality of life as the disease progresses. The scarring of lung tissue can significantly decrease your lung functioning and make breathing a challenge.
The disease can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2005-2014, there were 13,024 deaths in the U.S. from asbestosis. The annual death rate was around 1,300.
Asbestosis and mesothelioma share some pain-relief treatments, such as draining fluid from the chest. However, in general, the therapies for these two conditions are distinctly different.
Treatments for asbestosis are much less aggressive and focus on relieving asbestosis symptoms and slowing down the progression of the disease.
Some of the most common therapies are:
- Bronchodilators (inhalers)
- Pulmonary medications and rehabilitation exercises
- Supplemental oxygen
- Pain medication
Surgery for Asbestosis?
Thoracentesis is used for both asbestosis and mesothelioma patients. This minimally invasive procedure is used to drain fluid from the pleura (where mesothelioma often forms) or lungs to increase the patient’s ability to breathe more comfortably. In very severe cases, asbestosis patients may be candidates for a lung transplant.
This is typically only the case in the presence of lung cancer and is not a treatment option for mesothelioma patients. Mesothelioma surgery involves removing (and not replacing) the affected lung, or taking out the pleura, which is the thin membrane between the lungs and chest wall.
Smoking and mesothelioma aren’t related, but smoking can make a patient’s mesothelioma prognosis worse. There’s a similar relationship between smoking and asbestosis. Smoking does not cause asbestosis. However, the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure can amplify scarring of lung tissue.
How Mesothelioma and Asbestosis Develop
Mesothelioma and asbestosis have the same cause: exposure to asbestos. Therefore, those who are most at risk for mesothelioma (miners, electricians, construction workers, insulation workers, military veterans, etc.) are the same groups of people at risk for asbestosis.
Another commonality between these diseases is the latency period between time of exposure and emergence of the disease. Both diseases usually take at least 20 years from the time of exposure to develop. Mesothelioma can have a latency period up to 50 years.
These two diseases have a different biological development process. Asbestosis develops from asbestos fibers lodging in the alveoli, which are the lung’s air sacs. The lungs become stiffer as scarring continues with time.
Mesothelioma develops from asbestos fibers lodging in the cellular lining of one of two membranes: the pleura or peritoneum. The pleura is the lining near the lungs. The peritoneum is the lining around the abdominal cavity.
Legal Resources for Asbestosis
Similar to mesothelioma, asbestosis patients are entitled to compensation for their disease. Their exposure to asbestos was not their fault or their doing. Most people were unaware at the time that asbestos was dangerous — or even present in their workplace, home or other setting.
However, people with asbestosis face a challenge connecting their disease to specific exposure instances. Therefore, a detailed work history is often required to file a successful lawsuit or asbestos trust fund claim.
If you or a loved one has asbestosis, you may be able to get help paying for lost wages and treatment. Learn more about your legal options.
Sources & Author
- What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia? American Lung Association. Retrieved from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pneumonia/symptoms-and-diagnosis. Accessed: 06/19/2020.
- Asbestosis Symptoms and Diagnosis. American Lung Association. Retrieved from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/asbestosis/symptoms-diagnosis. Accessed: 06/19/2020.
- How Asbestosis Is Treated. American Lung Association. Retrieved from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/asbestosis/treating-and-managing. Accessed: 06/19/2020.
- Asbestosis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://wwwn.cdc.gov/eworld/Grouping/Asbestosis/92. Accessed: 06/19/2020.
- Asbestos exposure, asbestosis, and smoking combined greatly increase lung cancer risk. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130412084227.htm. Accessed: 06/19/2020.