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Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by asbestos exposure. The asbestos fibres can become lodged in the lungs, leading to the inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue. This can make it difficult for the lungs to properly exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, leading to a variety of symptoms.
Asbestos is a broad term for a class of minerals composed of microscopic ﬁbres. It was once used extensively in construction.
Asbestos can be extremely hazardous. It does not pose a health risk if left undisturbed, but if asbestos-containing material is chipped, drilled, or broken, it can release tiny particles of dust containing asbestos fibres.
Asbestos fibres, when inhaled, enter the lungs and can slowly damage them over time. Prolonged exposure to a large number of asbestos fibres is required for the development of asbestosis; however, this is not the sole determinant, as many people who have been exposed to asbestos do not develop the disease.
Signs and symptoms of asbestosis
Asbestosis is a progressive disease, meaning that it typically worsens over time. It is also a long-latency disease; that is, its symptoms may not appear for many years after the initial exposure to asbestos.
Asbestosis symptoms that affect breathing include shortness of breath, chest pain, and a dry crackling sound in the lungs while breathing; however, they can also manifest as other health issues.
At the time of diagnosis, the frequency and severity of asbestosis symptoms could vary.
The following are the most common asbestosis symptoms:
- Persistent, dry cough
- Shortness of breath
- Chest discomfort or tightness
- While inhalation, a dry crackling sound in the lungs
- Blood in the sputum
- Neck or face swelling
- Difficulty swallowing
- Deformity of the fingers (clubbing)
- Weight loss
- Appetite loss
The advanced symptoms of asbestosis can include severe shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, as well as weight loss. Individuals with advanced asbestosis may also have a bluish tint to their skin due to a lack of oxygen. The disease can also lead to lung infections, such as pneumonia, and lung cancer, making it a serious health concern.
How long does it take for asbestosis symptoms to appear?
Asbestosis is a type of fibrosis that appears over time after being exposed to asbestos fibres. The scar tissue gradually replaces healthy the lung tissue. This scar tissue, when it becomes too thick, can impair pulmonary function.
Asbestos fibres are inhaled during exposure to them and could become lodged in the lungs. The fibres’ sharp, straight shape makes them hard for the body to remove and expel. After being in the body for an extended period of time, the fibres cause irritation, inflammation, and scarring, resulting in symptoms that primarily affect the lungs.
Most asbestosis patients develop symptoms within 20 to 30 years of being exposed to asbestos. When a person is exposed to asbestos for an extended period of time, such as a couple of years or more, the latency period for symptom development approaches 20 years.
Diagnosis of asbestosis
The diagnosis of asbestosis typically involves methods such as a chest X-ray and pulmonary function tests. An X-ray may show small, rounded opacities in the lung, and a pulmonary function test may indicate decreased lung function. In some cases, a CT scan or a biopsy may also be needed to confirm the diagnosis.
There is no cure for asbestosis once it develops because the damage to the lungs cannot be reversed. The goal of asbestosis treatment is to manage symptoms while preserving lung function. The treatment will be determined by the extent of the disease. The available treatment options are:
- Oxygen therapy: Extra oxygen delivered through a tube, mask, or tube in the nostrils makes breathing more comfortable.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation: A programme of exercises and behavioural changes can help individuals function better in their everyday life.
- Lung transplant procedure: In rare instances, a healthy, new lung received from the transplant can help relieve symptoms and increase life expectancy.