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Asbestosis – a complete guide

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a general term that refers to a group of minerals which are made up of fibres. The three most common types are Chrysolite (white asbestos), Amosite (brown asbestos) and Crocidolite (blue asbestos).

Asbestos was an extremely popular material to use in the 1950’s, right up until the 1980’s. It’s durability, resistance to heat, versatility and insulating properties made it an idea material for a number of industries like insulation, ship building, electricity generating and building and construction.

However, asbestos is also a highly toxic substance and research now shows that it has a direct link with lung diseases and other illnesses. For this reason, it is now a material that is not used and is banned in more than 50 countries.

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What is Asbestosis?

Despite asbestos appearing to be an ideal material to work with, it is also highly toxic. Research now shows that exposure to the material can have serious, long-term effects such as lung diseases.  If asbestos is disturbed – by drilling, chipping or breaking the surface, then it becomes deadly.

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease which is caused by exposure to asbestos. When the asbestos is disturbed, it releases a fine dust containing fibres. These fibres are then inhaled and can cause diseases due to the lung tissue becoming scarred.

An individual must be exposed to asbestos fibres over a long period of time for asbestosis to develop. However, there are additional factors which can contribute to the affect that asbestos exposure has, such as:

  • The type of fibre inhaled (white asbestos is the least harmful, brown is the next and blue is the most harmful)
  • How much of the fibres have been inhaled
  • Whether the person has any previous lung conditions
  • Whether the person is a smoker or not

 

Symptoms of Asbestosis

Symptoms of asbestosis usually develop years after an individual has been exposed to asbestos. This time frame can be as little as seven years, but there have been many cases where no symptoms have been apparent until 20-30 years after the exposure.

The general symptoms of asbestosis are:

  • Coughing (often a persistent cough)
  • Shortness of breath (which may start only after physical exercise but eventually become a constant problem)
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain

 

In more advanced cases, people can also suffer with swollen fingers (also known as finger clubbing)

Diagnosing Asbestosis

When diagnosing asbestosis, your GP will about your symptoms, listen to your chest, and ask whether you have been exposed to asbestos during your lifetime. If he/she suspects that you have asbestosis, you will be referred to a specialist in lung disease.

A specialist will then perform tests to establish whether or not you have any scarring on your lungs. These could include any of the following:

  • Chest x-rays – this will detect any abnormalities in the structure of your lungs which could be caused by asbestosis
  • CT scans – this produces a more detailed scan to help identify any less obvious abnormalities
  • Lung function tests – these tests will establish the impact of damage of the lungs. Seeing how much oxygen your lungs can hold and assessing how well oxygen enters the bloodstream are common lung function tests

 

In addition to these tests, a specialist will also rule out other lung diseases that match your symptoms.

Treating Asbestosis

At present there is no cure for asbestosis, but there are steps which can be taken to help ease symptoms and improve your quality of life. These are:

  • Stop smoking – if you have been diagnosed with asbestosis and you smoke, you should try to stop as soon as possible. Smoking can make symptoms such as breathlessness much worse and also put you at a higher risk of developing lung cancer
  • Vaccinations – having asbestosis will make your lungs more vulnerable to catching infections. Because of this, it is important to have vaccinations such as the influenza jab to protect you from the flu and the pneumococcal vaccination to protect you from the bacteria that can cause pneumonia.
  • Oxygen therapy – if your asbestosis is severe, your body may not be getting the amount of oxygen that it needs. If this is the case, then regular oxygen therapy may be recommended. This is supplied through a machine which purifies oxygen from the air in the room to produce a more oxygen-rich supply of air.
  • Medication – the majority of the time, medication will not befit an asbestosis sufferer in any way. However, if you have another condition such as COPD, specific medication can help. For more severe cases, medicines such as morphine can help to reduce breathlessness and coughing, but only in small does.

Prognosis of Asbestosis

The general prognosis of asbestosis is that people can live for many years. However, because the condition gets worse over time, people will need an increased amount of treatment as they get older, to help them live as comfortably as possible.

Related diseases

People with asbestosis have a higher risk of developing other serious conditions and diseases. These include:

  • Lung cancer
  • Pleural disease – where the membrane that covers the lungs becomes thicker, resulting in breathlessness and chest pain
  • Mesothelioma – this is also known as ‘asbestos cancer’ which is a type of cancer that affects the membrane that covers the heart, lungs and gut

 

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Industrial disease resources

Facts about asbestos