Asbestosis: the dangers of exposure to asbestos

Asbestos is a natural product that is resistant to temperature changes and corrosion. This made it very common as a building material. However, inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to serious health risks.

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that can develop decades after exposure to asbestos fibers. Although there is no cure, treatments can slow progression and improve symptoms.


Exposure to high levels of asbestos over a significant period of time can lead to: in the air fibres settle in the alveoli. These little sacs are where the body exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide in the blood. The fibers irritate and eventually scar the tissue, stiffening the lungs and making breathing difficult.

Without treatment, the scarring worsens until the lungs can barely expand and contract.

A macro photo of fibers of the mineral chrysotile asbestos taken from the host rock with tweezers eanstudio / Shutterstock

Signs and Symptoms

The effects of exposure to asbestos may not occur until: 10 to 40 years later† Symptoms can also vary in severity, from minor difficulty breathing to complete respiratory failure.

The primary symptom of asbestosis is usually shortness of breath that slowly worsens, especially when performing physical activities. Some other common effects include:

  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Changes in appetite, with weight loss
  • Fingertips and toes become rounder and wider, also known as clubbing
  • Chest tightness and pain
woman trouble breathing twinsterphoto/Getty Images

Risk Factors

People who worked around asbestos before the late 1970s have the highest opportunity from asbestosis. This includes construction workers, electricians, shipyard workers and asbestos miners. Second-hand exposure can affect family members of these people because asbestos fibers can adhere to work clothes.

Research shows that smoking increases the retention of asbestos fibers in the lungs and makes asbestosis more likely to occur.

miner welder on constriction site King Ropes Access / Shutterstock


Doctors may have difficulty diagnosing asbestosis because of the non-specific symptoms and slow progression† People who have worked with asbestos in the past should notify their doctor immediately to facilitate diagnosis.

During the diagnostic process, medical professionals will perform a physical exam to listen for a crackling sound while breathing. They will usually also order some form of imaging, such as a chest X-ray or CT scan.

Doctor examining chest x-ray of patient in hospital utah778 / Getty Images

Other Diagnostic Procedures

Because asbestosis usually affects lung capacity and performance, doctors may also perform lung function tests. This usually involves blowing into a spirometer, although more sophisticated tests exist.

Occasionally, a doctor may need to test whether the lungs contain asbestos fibres† Bronchoscopy involves inserting a thin tube into the lungs through the nose or mouth to look for obstructions or to collect fluid or tissue for a sample. Thoracentesis involves inserting a needle between the ribs to remove fluid from the lungs for testing and to improve breathing.

Patient with spirometer Ross Helen / Shutterstock

Treatment options

new healing consists for asbestosis and nothing can undo the damage that asbestos fibers cause. Instead, treatment routes focus on slowing the progression of the condition, relieving symptoms, and avoiding complications.

Regular drainage of lung secretions is often necessary. Doctors will also vaccinate patients against common respiratory problems such as pneumonia and the flu.

Vaccination of senior person in hospital Inside Creative House / Getty Images

Oxygen therapy and rehabilitation

Most people with asbestosis require: oxygen therapy At home. Oxygen therapy uses nasal tubes or face masks to increase the amount of oxygen the lungs receive and bring into the blood.

Pulmonary rehabilitation is also helpful for many people. A pulmonary rehabilitation course usually includes health education, exercise, training, and breathing techniques that help improve lung performance.

inhalation therapy in progress Nikola Ilic / Getty Images


Asbestosis dramatically increases the risk of developing various pulmonary and heart problems† Most notably, people with the condition are much more likely to develop lung cancer. Cancer of the tissue around the lungs, called malignant mesothelioma, can also form in some cases. In rare cases, asbestosis leads to pulmonary heart disease.

Young sick man patient wearing oxygen mask while female doctor listening his chest with stethoscope SB Arts Media / Shutterstock


Avoiding asbestos is the best way to prevent asbestosis. However, some companies continue to manufacture or work with asbestos products. In these cases, protective equipment such as gas masks and disposable suits, gloves and shoes are necessary.

Although asbestos is still present in many buildings, risk by exposure to asbestos low as long as the materials remain contained and undisturbed.

Man shaking dust from gloves wearing gas mask EvgeniyShkolenko / Getty Images

Sources of asbestos

Understanding which materials and buildings contain asbestos can make it easier to prevent asbestosis. Building materials from before 1975 are most likely to have asbestos. This includes

  • Caulk and similar compounds
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Heat resistant fabrics
  • Insulation, especially over furnaces and steam lines
  • Shingles
  • Textured paints and patching compounds.

Avoid disturbing these materials when refurbishing or renovating an older building. If necessary, contact professionals for proper asbestos removal.

Asbestos mineral fibers in human fingers, close up. eanstudio / Shutterstock
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