Key Points About Asbestosis

  • Asbestosis is an incurable lung disease caused by long-term exposure to asbestos that contributes to approximately 1,000 American deaths each year.
  • Asbestosis is caused by long-term exposure to high levels of asbestos. As your condition progresses, your lungs become stiff, making breathing difficult.
  • People who worked in the mining, milling, manufacturing industries, or had jobs installing or removing asbestos before the late 1970s are at risk of developing asbestosis.
  • There is not a cure for asbestosis, but treatments can help control your symptoms. 


Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis characterized by scar tissue in the lungs. While it is not cancer, the cause is the same as mesothelioma.

Typically, the cause is from long-term exposure to asbestos-containing materials. It usually takes years of exposure to asbestos, followed by a period with no exposure that can last decades before symptoms develop.

Asbestosis causes

Asbestosis is caused by long-term exposure to high levels of asbestos. When you breathe in asbestos particles, the fibers can lodge in the tiny sacs in the lungs responsible for exchanging carbon dioxide in the blood. When this occurs, the lung tissue can scar and become stiff, making it difficult to breathe. As the disease progresses, your lung tissue can become so stiff that the lungs cannot contract and expand effectively. The disease generally progresses quicker in people who smoke. 

Asbestosis risk factors

People who have worked in industries such as mining, milling, manufacturing, or had jobs installing or removing asbestos before the late 1970s are at risk of developing asbestosis. Occupations that increase your risk include:

  • Electricians.
  • Aircraft mechanics.
  • Construction workers. 
  • Railroad workers.
  • Mill workers.
  • Shipyard workers. 
  • Auto mechanics.

Your risk of developing asbestosis increases the longer you were exposed to asbestos.

It is possible to be exposed to asbestos through secondhand exposure. Asbestos fibers can be carried home on clothing and released into the air. 

If asbestos fibers are contained, it is safe to be around asbestos-containing materials.

Asbestosis symptoms

Symptoms associated with asbestosis include:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Persistent, dry cough.
  • Weight loss from loss of appetite.
  • Chest pain or tightness.
  • Fingertips or toes that are rounder or wider than normal.
  • Fatigue.
  • Crackling sound when breathing.

Symptoms often vary in severity and may not appear for 10 to 40 years after exposure.

Asbestosis complications

Complications associated with asbestosis include:

  • Mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a severe type of lung cancer caused by long term exposure to asbestos. 
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a chronic lung condition comprised of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
  • Pleural effusion (PE). PE is the buildup of fluid around the lungs. 

Asbestosis is more severe in people who have been exposed to high levels of asbestos for an extended period. The disease progresses slower once your exposure to asbestos stops.

Asbestosis diagnosis

Your doctor will take a full medical history to determine if you have been exposed to high levels of asbestos. If so, he or she will order a variety of tests to confirm your diagnosis or rule out other lung conditions with similar symptoms.

Tests include:

  • Listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. 
  • X-ray to look for nodules on your lungs.
  • Pulmonary function tests to measure how much air you can inhale as well as the airflow to and from the lungs.
  • CT scan to get detailed images of your lungs.
  • Biopsy to determine if you have asbestos fibers in your lung tissue.

Asbestosis treatment

There is not a cure for asbestosis. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. 

Treatments for asbestosis include:

  • Lifestyle modifications such as quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising.
  • Occupation change. Avoid exposure by changing careers.
  • Prescription inhalers. A prescription inhaler can loosen the congestion in your lungs.
  • Oxygen therapy. If you have severe trouble breathing, you may benefit from supplemental oxygen. 
  • Lung transplant. If you have a severe case of asbestosis, a lung transplant may be a treatment option.

When to Seek Care

Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you worked in an occupation that puts you at risk for developing asbestosis. If you have been in that occupation for ten years or more, your doctor should perform a chest X-ray every three to five years. 

To prevent asbestosis if you are regularly exposed to asbestos, carefully follow OSHA safety procedures. Your employer is required to follow federal safety laws, offer employee training sessions, and provide routine medical exams. 

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