Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at January 15, 2016

Asbestos is a fire-resistant mineral that is found in rocks all over the world and was commonly used as a construction material in building roofs, brakes, pipes, and building insulation. Prolonged asbestos exposure leads to the chronic lung disease known as asbestosis.


Definition & Facts

Asbestos, a carcinogen, is the number one cause of occupational cancer. Asbestosis can take years for symptoms to appear, and unfortunately there is no known cure. According to an estimate by the EPA, between 1940 and 1980, twenty-seven million workers in the United States were exposed to asbestos. Harmful asbestos fibers are invisible, so a worker could be inhaling it all day and not be aware of it. Once a person has asbestosis, he or she may need a form of chest physical therapy such as percussion of the chest or surgery to drain fluid from the lungs. Asbestosis patients have a high risk of mesothelioma and should see a specialist regularly.

Symptoms & Complaints

A cough that won't go away, coughing up blood, breathing problems, fatigue, chest pain, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping are the most common primary symptoms of asbestosis. Dry inspiratory crackles, or a rattling noise in the lungs while a patient inhales, and clubbed fingers are signs that there is not enough oxygen in the blood.

Although asbestosis can manifest in about 7 years, in other cases, it can take up to 20 years or longer for a patient to exhibit symptoms. Often, the severity of the symptoms is correlated to the length of exposure. Patients suffering from asbestosis are 8-10 times more likely to develop lung cancer and heart disease.


The primary causes of asbestosis are exposure to asbestos in workplace environments or unregulated higher amounts of asbestos in residential environments. People can be exposed to the toxic fibers occupationally or environmentally. Smoking can exacerbate the problem.

Diagnosis & Tests

Asbestosis can be diagnosed a number of ways. X-rays can show any abnormalities in a patient's lungs, such as pleural plaques (calcification). Pulmonary function tests can measure the capacity of a patient's lungs, which relates directly to asbestos-related problems. These tests measure how efficiently a persons lungs are distributing oxygen throughout the bloodstream.

CT scans can be more helpful than a standard chest X-ray to detect what stage asbestosis the patient is suffering from. They also highlight the patches that appear on the lungs in cases of more advanced disease. Biopsies are used when tumors are found in the initial imaging tests. Tissue or fluid samples are analyzed to determine if the patient has any type of cancer in addition to asbestos damage.

Treatment & Therapy

The primary treatments for asbestosis are limited because it is an irreversible condition. Once the lungs or other areas are badly damaged, there are no therapies that offer long term help effectively. With this in mind, most physicians will recommend a combination of prescription inhalers and bronchial medications. The most widely used are systemic antibiotics, bronchodilators and aspirin. Some patients utilize humidifiers or oxygen therapies, but often will need to combine this with regular dosages of cough suppressants in order to facilitate the most effective impact on their daily health. In extreme cases, a patient may undergo surgical procedures to remove existing scar tissue in the lungs. Research is ongoing and no single clinical treatment has been found to be effective universally.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Asbestos exposure must be avoided so that asbestosis related conditions do not become problems for any individual. For anyone that has been exposed to asbestos or needs proper treatment, being examined by a physician is the first and most important step.

Modern regulations are in place throughout the world in an attempt to prevent exposure, but it is taking time to eliminate asbestosis. Avoiding primary risk factors and workplace exposure is currently the best line of defense.