Asbestos has been widely used in the United States; nearly everyone has been exposed to asbestos at some time in his or her life. However, most people who become sick from asbestos are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and are exposed more often.
Most asbestos fibers that are inhaled are breathed out, but some can become lodged in the lungs and remain there throughout life. Because asbestos fibers attach to the membranes that line the chest cavity and cover the lungs, they cannot be coughed out or washed out. Fibers can gather and cause scarring and inflammation. As the lung tissue scars and thickens, breathing becomes more difficult.
Most people do not show any signs or symptoms of asbestos-related disease for 10 to 20 years or more after exposure. The most common asbestos-related illnesses are lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis:
Lung cancer is a malignant tumor that invades and obstructs the lung’s air passages. Cigarette smoking greatly increases the likelihood of a person developing lung cancer as the result of asbestos exposure.
Signs and symptoms of lung cancer include: coughing, hoarseness, wheezing, labored breathing, shortness of breath, persistent chest pain, and anemia.
Other symptoms can include weight loss, fever, chills, and night sweats. People who develop these symptoms do not necessarily have lung cancer, but they should consult a physician for advice. Most cases of lung cancer in workers occurred 15 years or more after the person was first exposed to asbestos.
Mesothelioma is a very rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen. Most mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos and are diagnosed 30 years or more after the first exposure. By the time a person is diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is almost always fatal.
Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma include: shortness of breath or trouble breathing, unexplained weight loss, pain under the ribs, pain, swelling, or lumps in the abdomen.
Asbestosis is a serious, progressive, long-term disease that causes scarring of the lungs. This scarring makes it hard for lungs to get oxygen into the blood. It restricts breathing and leads to smaller lung volume. Asbestosis is not a cancer.
Signs and symptoms of asbestosis include: shortness of breath (the primary symptom), a persistent and productive cough that expels mucus, chest tightness
chest pain, loss of appetite, and/or a dry, crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling.
Asbestosis generally progresses slowly, but the rate can vary greatly from one patient to another. Breathing can become more difficult as the symptoms progress over time. Lung tissues and the lining of the chest wall can change from the thinness and stretchiness of a balloon to the thickness and hardness of an orange peel.
People with asbestosis may require aggressive medical care, including frequent use of antibiotics when warranted, for any respiratory infection. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath becomes worse. After awhile, a person may require supplemental oxygen to carry out daily activities. The end result of the disease is lung and heart failure.