Written By: Devin Golden

Mesothelioma Latency Period

Mesothelioma usually takes 20-50 years to develop. This time frame is called the mesothelioma latency period.

Karen Ritter, RN BSN

Medically Reviewed By

Karen Ritter, RN BSN

Registered Nurse

Karen Ritter, RN BSN

Medically Reviewed By

Karen Ritter, RN BSN

Registered Nurse


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What Is Mesothelioma Latency Period?

Mesothelioma latency period is the time between a person’s asbestos exposure and their mesothelioma diagnosis. It often lasts multiple decades.

There is no safe asbestos exposure level. Any amount of inhaled or ingested fibers can cause mesothelioma. Latency period begins when fibers first reach the mesothelial linings.

Why Does Mesothelioma Take So Long to Develop?

Mesothelioma does not develop immediately. Each patient’s latency period is different, but the disease forms in the same biological way: asbestos exposure.

When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they become lodged in the protective coating of the lung cavity or abdominal cavity. The cellular linings in these membranes are collectively known as the mesothelium.

These sharp asbestos fibers cause scarring and inflammation in the mesothelium, ultimately leading to the formation of tumors. This scarring and inflammation occurs very slowly, though.

Most estimates find the average latency period for mesothelioma patients is approximately 40 years. One study of 1,690 mesothelioma patients found that only 4% were diagnosed within 20 years of their exposure.

Factors Affecting Mesothelioma Latency Period

There are several factors contributing to how long mesothelioma takes to develop. These factors coincide with the general mesothelioma risk factors.

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Duration of Exposure

The longer someone is exposed to asbestos, their risk of mesothelioma increases and their latency period is likely to decrease. More fibers enter the body the longer someone is exposed to asbestos.

As more fibers irritate cells, the chances of mesothelioma forming quicker increase. Duration of exposure is also why specific occupations are more at risk of developing mesothelioma.

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Amount of Exposure

The frequency of exposure and the concentration of asbestos fibers both play a role in the amount of exposure. Shorter latency periods are caused by continually inhaling or ingesting large amounts of asbestos.

The more sharp fibers enter the body, the higher likelihood a few of them lodge into and irritate cells. This increases the chances of mesothelioma forming quickly.

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A person’s occupation can have a big impact on their latency period. Occupational asbestos exposure is more common in industrial trades, and certain trades exposed workers to higher concentrations of the substance.

Mining, a profession already known for its correlation to respiratory conditions, has exposed workers to large amounts of asbestos in a confined space.The most devastating example of this occurred in the mining town of Libby, Montana.

There is a synergistic effect between the concentration of asbestos and the heightened breathing rates of workers in conditions like these. This is because they are inclined to inhale large amounts of asbestos.

A few occupations at risk of a high amount of asbestos exposure

Shipyard Workers

Shipyard Workers



Insulation Workers

Insulation Workers



Effects of Mesothelioma Latency Period

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Mesothelioma is one of the hardest diseases to diagnose, which is largely due to the cancer’s long latency period. Many people do not connect their mesothelioma symptoms to their past asbestos exposure. This is because they occur decades apart.

Therefore, diagnosing mesothelioma is difficult and often doesn’t happen until the disease is advanced. This leads to a poor prognosis.

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The long mesothelioma latency period can also affect treatment. Since mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose, the disease often isn’t identified until it’s advanced. If a case has metastasized, there might not be many treatment options.

A long latency period also explains why most patients are elderly. Some patients are too old — and too weak — to endure curative treatment options like surgery.

However, patients should seek alternative therapies. Emerging treatment methods, such as immunotherapy, are gaining approval from the FDA.

Improving Diagnosis and Prognosis

Understanding the latency period of mesothelioma is important to diagnosing mesothelioma earlier. Scientists and mesothelioma specialists are hoping to increase survival times by catching the disease before it metastasizes.

Unfortunately, mesothelioma is typically only diagnosed after symptoms begin. In early stages, symptoms are minor and difficult to recognize as signs of a deadly cancer.

As a patient, you should understand that while the latency period is beyond your control, your mesothelioma prognosis is not.

Getting a second opinion can reveal a better prognosis. If you were diagnosed with mesothelioma, then you should see a specialist. They may diagnose you at an earlier stage or recommend live-saving surgery. We can help you find a specialist for a second opinion through our free Doctor Match program.

Frequently Asked Questions About Mesothelioma Latency Period

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What does the “latency period” mean for mesothelioma?

Latency period is how long a disease takes to develop. Mesothelioma has a lengthy latency period, of at least 20 years and sometimes as much as 50 years. The long amount of time between exposure and development is why mesothelioma is hard to detect. Patients also struggle to piece together what caused their cancer.

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What can affect the latency period for mesothelioma?

There are multiple factors that can dictate an individual’s mesothelioma latency period. The most important detail is asbestos exposure, explicitly how much enters a person’s body. People who worked jobs that involved regular exposure to asbestos are more likely to have a shorter latency period.

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How does latency period affect treatment?

A long latency period means patients are often elderly, which can limit treatment. If a latency period is just 20-30 years, then the patient may be young and strong enough to withstand surgery and other treatment options.

Sources & Author

  1. Risk Factors for Malignant Mesothelioma. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html. Accessed: 04/06/2020.
  2. Latent period for malignant mesothelioma of occupational origin. Journal of Occupational Medicine. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1494965. Accessed: 10/10/18.
  3. O’Bryne, Kenneth and Rusch, Valerie. (2006). Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma. New York. Oxford University Press.
Devin Golden

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is a content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.