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Asbestos Illnesses, their Prognosis, and Outcomes

Asbestos can cause three main diseases, and also contribute to a range of other illnesses.

There are a number of problems that originate from inhalation of asbestos. The risk of these diseases increases with exposure, so the more you inhale, the more likely you are to get sick. The latency period from inhaling the asbestos to noticing symptoms of the disease range from ten to fifty years, with most people being diagnosed around thirty years later, so it can be slow to get started; however once diagnosed, the disease can rapidly worsen in a short space of time.


This is when asbestos fibres are inhaled, and they become lodged in the alveoli in your lungs. These are small sacs that line your lungs. They are involved with the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide in your blood. These fibres irritate the lung tissue and cause scarring. This causes lungs to stiffen, making it harder to breathe.

The scars cause more scarring, making it so the lungs cannot expand and contract as usual, making it difficult and eventually impossible to breathe.

Symptoms start off mild and worsen over time. These include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • A dry, persistent cough
  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Crackling sounds in your lungs when you breathe
  • ‘Clubbing’, which is when toes and fingernails become wider and rounder

There is no cure for asbestosis, the damage is irreversible. However, there are some exercises and treatments to ease the pain and manage symptoms. Life span can be considerably shortened, or in some cases the condition does not progress much at all.


This is a form of cancer which develops in the layer of tissue that covers many internal organs. This is called the mesothelium. The most common form of this occurs is in the lungs and chest wall, and 80% of these cases are caused by asbestos. It is theorised that other forms of mesothelioma around the body are due to fibres being transported from the lungs, but this is not proven yet.

When asbestos fibres are inhaled, they can penetrate the lung and be deposited in the lung mesothelium. These fibres irritate the tissue and cause lesions, which are attacked by the immune system and various macrophages. These lesions start changing at a cellular level, turning into a malignant tumour.

Symptoms are much the same as asbestosis, with:

  • Chest pains
  • Fluid around the lung
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing, dry cough
  • Fatigue and anaemia
  • Coughing produces blood

Treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy, but there is no cure. It’s an aggressive disease and once diagnosed, the only option is making the patient more comfortable.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is common and can be caused by a number of things, including asbestos exposure. Typically, it’s known to be linked to smoking cigarettes. Lung cancer caused by different things have exactly same outcomes and there’s no way to identify the cause; an asbestos lung cancer looks exactly like a smoking lung cancer.

When cells in the lungs mutate and change. These mutated cells divide uncontrollably, causing tumours to grow. These impact the function of the lungs, can spread to other parts of the body, and eventually obstruct the ability to breathe completely.

It is important to note that asbestos exposure and smoking increases the risk of lung cancer by ten times.

Symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • A hoarse voice
  • Chest infections
  • Swelling in the chest lymph nodes
  • A cough that doesn’t get better, and worsens over time
  • Pain in the chest
  • Wheezing, shortness of breath

Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, targeted therapies, but beyond that there’s palliative care to reduce pain and other symptoms. There is no cure.

Pleural Disease

The tissue that covers the outside of your lungs is called the pleura. There is a space between the layers, and this is called the pleural space. In normal, healthy people, there is some fluid that fills this space, and this helps the layers glide against each other smoothly. There are three disorders of the pleural area:

  • Pleurisy- Inflammation of the fluid and surrounding areas
  • Pleural effusion and pneumothorax – infection, injury or medical condition causes fluids or gases to fill up this space

Asbestos causes calcification, thickening, pleural plaques, and a range of other problems in the pleura. Mesothelioma is a form of pleural disease.

There are a range of possible treatments for pleural disease, depending on the type of disorder. For instance, draining the inflamed fluid, surgery, or a chest tube. Treatment for most forms remain palliative, however.

Cancer of the Gastrointestinal Tract, Kidney, and Throat

In terms of being caused by asbestos, there are various cancers throughout the body, however these are rare. There is mixed evidence, but it appears that fibres are inhaled and then can travel throughout the body. The asbestos fibres become imbedded, then cells mutate, and this causes growth and tumours.

For example, cancer of the larynx is caused by cigarettes, alcohol, sulfuric acid, and asbestos exposure. The likelihood of this cancer is increased with laryngeal cancer, especially if there is also smoking and alcohol consumption.

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder)

COPD is inflammation of the lungs which causes airflow issues in the lungs. There are two forms, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. While the science is hazy, it seems that COPD can develop as a complication of asbestosis, and that exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing COPD.

Once again, there’s no cure for COPD, but treatment can slow progression and help manage the symptoms.

Don’t Muck Around with Asbestos

The end stages of all these diseases are similar. The patient is breathless more often, and even small tasks are difficult and exhausting. There are ‘episodes’ of breathlessness which get more severe. The right side of the heart may fail, a small cold or flu may cause pneumonia and infection.

While people who worked with or around asbestos removal are more likely to get these diseases, there is no known ‘safe’ dose of asbestos. Once lodged in the lungs, these fibres cannot be removed; and while the body does manage to remove some of them, it’s not 100%. There’s asbestos in everything and we are all exposed to low levels of exposure to it.

To decrease your chances of a large dose of asbestos, ensure you use qualified and skilled asbestos removal experts for any work in your home or business. Don’t muck around with asbestos, it’s not worth the fatal risk.

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