Asbestosis is a chronic respiratory disorder that occurs as a result of the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Asbestos is a material that was commonly used in construction, particularly in insulation and floor tiles, until the mid-1970s. Inhalation of its dust can cause the formation of scar tissue in the lungs, resulting in respiratory distress. Symptoms of asbestosis range from mild to severe and normally do not appear until there has been prolonged exposure. The majority of patients with this disease acquired it on the job before federal regulations on its use were put into effect. Asbestosis cannot be cured, but it can be treated.
Causes of Asbestosis
Inhalation of high levels of asbestos dust over a long period causes causes fibers to become imbedded in the alveoli, the air sacs of the lungs. These fibers are an irritant to lung tissue, causing it to scar and stiffen. The more the disease progresses, the stiffer the lung tissue becomes, preventing it from contracting and expanding in the usual way and interfering with normal breathing. In individuals who smoke, asbestosis progresses more quickly.
Symptoms of Asbestosis
Typically, it takes between 20 and 30 years after initial exposure for the symptoms of asbestosis to appear. These symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness or pain
- Persistent, dry cough
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Pleural effusion, fluid accumulation in the pleural cavity
In advanced stages of asbestosis, patients may develop clubbed fingertips and toes that appear wider than normal and abnormalities of the nails.
Diagnosis of Asbestosis
When a patient suffering respiratory symptoms has a history of exposure to asbestos, the possibility of asbestosis must be investigated. In order to diagnose the disease, the doctor will perform a thorough physical examination and may perform the following tests:
- Pulmonary function tests
- Chest X-ray
- Pulmonary CT scan
During diagnosis, asbestosis must be distinguished from mesothelioma. Though both share many of the same symptoms, mesothelioma is form of cancer and has a worse prognosis. Although the conditions are different, patients with asbestosis have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma than other individuals.
Treatment of Asbestosis
While there is no cure currently available for asbestosis, measures can be taken to relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. In some cases, the initial treatment is to assist the patient in giving up smoking, since smoking exacerbates the condition and contributes to the development of lung cancer. Other possible treatments may, depending on the severity of the individual case, include one or more of the following:
- Drainage of the pleural cavity
- Oxygen therapy
- Medication to lower blood pressure, if necessary
- Lung transplant
Patients with asbestosis require follow-up examinations. The frequency of such examinations is determined by the stage of the disease. Because of increased susceptibility, it is extremely important that asbestosis patients take steps to prevent respiratory infections by getting necessary vaccinations for flu and pneumonia and by avoiding people who are ill.