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Asbestosis is a serious respiratory disease brought on by inhaling asbestos fibers. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause scar tissue (fibrosis) to form inside the lung. Scarred lung tissue does not expand and contract normally, and cannot perform gas exchange. A diagnosis of asbestosis occurs when the scar tissue becomes large enough to be identified on an x-ray. As the scar tissue expands throughout the lungs, the lungs become increasingly dysfunctional and breathing becomes labored.
The severity of the disease depends on how long the person was exposed to asbestos and the amount inhaled. Often, symptoms do not occur and are not noticed for a period of 20 years or more after the asbestos exposure. Symptoms of asbestosis appear gradually after large areas of the lung become scarred. The first symptom of asbestosis is usually shortness of breath after exercise or other physical activity. The early stages of the disease are also characterized by a dry cough and general feeling of illness. In about 15% of people with asbestosis, severe shortness of breath and respiratory failure develop.
As the disease progresses and lung damage increases, shortness of breath occurs even when the patient is at rest. Recurrent respiratory infections and coughing up blood are common. So is swelling of the feet, ankles, or hands. Patients who have asbestosis often have clubbed (widened and thickened) fingers. Other potential complications include heart failure, collapsed (deflated) lungs, and pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane that protects the lungs).
There is no cure available for asbestosis. Several procedures can be performed to ease symptoms including: postural drainage, chest percussion, and vibration to remove secretions from the lungs. Aerosol medications can be taken to thin secretions. People with this condition may need to receive oxygen by mask or by a plastic piece that fits into the nostrils. Certain patients may require a lung transplant.
Asbestos fibers were commonly used in construction before 1975. Asbestos exposure often occurred in the asbestos mining and milling industries, construction, fireproofing, and other industries. In families of asbestos workers, exposure can also occur from particles brought home on the worker's clothing. Asbestosis is considered an occupational lung disease.