Asbestosis is a respiratory disease caused by exposure to and inhalation of asbestos fibers. Also called Idiopathic interstitial pneumonitis, asbestosis affects the parenchymal tissue of the lungs, and is characterized by symptoms such as dyspnea, or shortness of breath, and an increased risk in developing different types of lung cancer. In fact, mesothelioma is a complication that can arise in patients with asbestosis.
While mesothelioma and asbestosis were often thought to be interchangeable terms defining the same cancer, it is important to note that the two ailments are very different. Mesothelioma is a malignant form of cancer affecting the mesothelial linings in the body. Asbestosis, on the other hand, is the non cancerous scarring of the lung tissue.
The primary symptom of asbestosis is the gradual onset of dyspnea with physical exertion. When asbestos fibers are inhaled and reach the air sacs in the lungs where oxygen is transferred to blood, or alveoli, the asbestos particles cause the body’s immune system to attempt to expel the fibers by producing an inflammatory response. As the body attempts to repel the foreign particles, a fibrous mass is formed resulting in interstitial fibrosis. As the fibrotic scar tissue thickens the alveolar walls, the lungs lose their ability to function and remove carbon dioxide. As the disease advances, respiratory failure may occur as the disease causes the lungs to lose their elasticity and ability to expand and contract. Additionally in very severe cases of asbestosis the total lung capacity is reduced and the lungs become stiff, leading to eventual heart failure. More than 50% of patients affected with asbestosis develop plaques in the space between the chest wall and lungs, and patients may also notice clubbing of the fingers as asbestosis worsens. Coughing is not typically associated with asbestosis, but may indicate other serious respiratory illnesses.
Those who have worked with asbestos fibers, or were exposed to asbestos through other methods are at the highest risk of developing asbestosis or other asbestos related illnesses. While prolonged exposure to asbestos obviously increases the risk of developing a chronic illness, there have been reports of people working with asbestos for as short as one month and still developing asbestos-related disease. Most cases of asbestosis do not emerge until 5-10 years after exposure occurs.