Mesothelioma vs. Asbestosis
Mesothelioma and asbestosis are both caused by inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers, but they aren’t the same disease. Each requires specific methods of treatment.
Comparing Asbestos-Related Diseases
Though mesothelioma and asbestosis are both asbestos-related diseases, they are not the same disease. The primary difference is that asbestosis is not a cancerous disease, while mesothelioma is. Those affected by either disease may be curious what the similarities and differences of these two illnesses are.
Differences Between Mesothelioma and Asbestosis
Patients with mesothelioma and asbestosis experience many of the same symptoms, such as shortness of breath, especially early on. Both diseases also have a long latency period, taking years after exposure for symptoms to appear.
Treatment options vary greatly for these diseases, primarily because one is a cancer and one isn’t. They do, however, share similar palliative treatments to increase quality of life.
Unlike mesothelioma, the prognosis associated with asbestosis is much more favorable. Patients with asbestosis can live decades with the disease, but it takes careful medical management. However, asbestosis is still a deadly disease and these patients may develop mesothelioma in the future.
What is Asbestosis?
In order to compare mesothelioma to asbestosis, it is important to have a basic understanding of what asbestosis is. Asbestosis is a chronic respiratory disease caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. The inhaled asbestos fibers cause lung scarring and stiffness of the lungs, which prevents the patient from taking full, deep breaths.
It has similarities to mesothelioma as an asbestos-related disease, but has more significant differences in terms of severity and treatment. Patients can get a summary of the differences between mesothelioma and asbestosis in our free Mesothelioma Guide.
Asbestosis is also very similar to pulmonary fibrosis and is often diagnosed as such. The difference between these diseases is that pulmonary fibrosis isn’t caused by asbestos exposure.
Is Asbestosis Cancer?
Asbestosis is not cancer, but studies have shown that having the disease can make patients more likely to develop lung cancer in the future. Patients with asbestosis could even develop mesothelioma in the future.
Although asbestosis isn’t cancer, there are, unfortunately, long-term complications involved with the disease and there is currently no cure.
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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, 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. It can take 10 to 40 years for both mesothelioma and asbestosis to develop.
Asbestosis develops due to scarring from asbestos fibers in the alveoli. Alveoli are the tiny air sacs in the lungs where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. Asbestosis continually progresses as time goes on, and the lungs become more stiff as scarring continues.
Another major difference in the two diseases is how smoking affects them. While smoking has a definite impact on the development of asbestosis, studies haven’t shown a correlation between smoking and mesothelioma.
Comparing Mesothelioma and Asbestosis
Asbestosis and mesothelioma share many of the same symptoms. However, the primary similarities in symptoms are typically those not specifically indicative of cancer. These symptoms are most commonly:
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent cough
- Chest pain
- Weight loss
Mesothelioma patients experience much more severe symptoms as their disease progresses.
A symptom that is more specific to asbestosis 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 the body. The scarring makes it hard to breathe, translating into less oxygen in the blood. This lack of oxygen can cause the clubbing. Patients with mesothelioma may develop clubbed fingers, but it is more rare.
Asbestosis can also contribute to cardiac issues because the lungs and heart work together. High blood pressure and heart disease aren’t uncommon in patients with asbestosis. Heart problems, therefore, can be an indicator of asbestosis.
Diagnosing mesothelioma and asbestosis starts at the same step: imaging tests. The first step is always an X-ray or CT scan. Doctors can identify a difference in the scans of the patient’s lungs, characterized by 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, further biopsy and blood tests will be conducted to determine the presence of any cancerous cells. A biopsy may even be taken if the patient is diagnosed with asbestosis, just to make sure.
While mesothelioma patients are generally given a prognosis of 4 to 12 months across the board, asbestosis has a much better outcome. Asbestosis affects every patient differently, and patients often live decades with the disease.
The primary downside for asbestosis patients, as a result of their diagnosis, is a decrease in quality of life as the disease progresses. The disease can still be deadly, however. The American Lung Association estimates there were 3,211 deaths from asbestosis between 1999 and 2004 in the United States.
Those with asbestosis may receive pain relief treatments that are also used for mesothelioma patients, but in general, there are many treatment options for asbestosis that are not used for patients with mesothelioma. Treatments for asbestosis are much less aggressive and focus on relieving symptoms and slowing down the progression of the disease. Some of the most common treatments are:
- Bronchodilators (inhalers)
- Pulmonary Medications
- Breathing tanks
- Pain medication
Surgery for Asbestosis?
Thoracentesis is used for both mesothelioma and asbestosis patients. This is a minimally invasive procedure used to drain fluid from the lungs to increase the patient’s ability to breathe more comfortably. In very severe cases, however, 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.
Resources for Asbestosis
Similar to mesothelioma patients, asbestosis patients are victims of asbestos exposure. It may be harder to relate asbestosis back to specific asbestos exposure. Therefore, a detailed work history is often required.
If you or a loved one has developed asbestosis as a result of asbestos exposure, you may be able to access money to help pay for lost wages and treatment costs. Learn more about your legal options.