Asbestos is a natural mineral that was widely used for insulation in the past. However, asbestos particles have been associated with serious disease when inhaled. Its use is now restricted and there are various safety procedures in place for people who work with asbestos. Apart from the lung disease that can arise with inhaling asbestos particles, it is also associated with a greater risk of cancers. One type of cancer known as mesothelioma is mainly seen with asbestos exposure.
Although the use of asbestos is carefully controlled and workers are required to take preventative measures, asbestosis is still a risk. The disease may only become apparent decades after exposure. Therefore many recent cases of asbestosis may not be due to recent exposure. In fact asbestos exposure can occur as long as four decades prior to the disease being diagnosed.
Read more on asbestosis.
What happens when exposed to asbestos?
It is important to understand that asbestos inhalation does not cause disease in every person. The quantity of asbestos particles, its size and the type of particles will also determine whether asbestos will caue lung disease or not. Understandably people working with asbestos are at a greater risk. However, modern safety practices when handling asbestos can greatly minimize the risk of inhalation and therefore the subsequent asbestos-related disease.
There are three types of asbestos particles. The most common type is usually trapped by mucus in the airways and can subsequently be removed. However, the less common types are able to travel through the airways and into the lungs. These particles can lodge in tissue spaces within the lungs and since it is not soluble it is not easily removed by the body’s various mechanisms.
The presence of this foreign body and the subsequent action of the immune system against it results in inflammation within the lung. Persistent immune action and inflammation results in the formation of scar tissue in the lung. This types of lung disease is known as asbestosis. In addition, the asbestos particles can also result in malignant tumor (cancerous growth) formation. This can lead to a type of cancer known as mesothelioma.
Who is at risk of asbestosis?
Asbestos use in homes has drastically decreased in the past few decades. However, some homes may still have insulation for pipes and ceilings, as well as floor tiles that are made of asbestos. There is usually little risk of asbestos exposure in these cases since the particles are only released when the asbestos-containing material is damaged or broken down. However, asbestosis is still a major risk for certain people.
Any person involved in construction, building maintenance, aircraft and ship workers, railway workers and asbestos miners are at a greater risk of asbestos exposure. Preventative measures like using a respirator and monitoring asbestos particles in the air are important to avoid inhalation. Any person undertaking demolition or maintenance of older buildings, even if not on a regular basis, needs to be cautious about the possibility of asbestos exposure.
How To Spot Asbestos Exposure
In most instances, asbestos exposure does not cause any symptoms immediately. There may be some symptoms caused by inhaling dust laden with dust but this is not due to the asbestos itself. It is only after decades that the effects of asbestos exposure becomes apparent. Most people may not even recall the incident when they were exposed to asbestos unless they worked with asbestos on a regular basis.
WARNING: Asbestosis should be diagnosed, treated and managed by a medical professional. When there are symptoms such as difficulty breathing and a persistent cough with bloody sputum and unintentional weight loss then immediate medical attention is necessary. These symptoms could be due to lung or pleural cancer which are more likely to arise with asbestos exposure, especially if a person is a tobacco smoker.
Shortness of Breath
Difficulty breathing gradually sets in with asbestosis. The scarring of the lung tissue hampers its ability to contract and expand during breathing as well as the exchange of gases between the air in the lungs and the bloodstream. Most people report shortness of breath from the early stages of asbestosis. It may not be present all the time but only with certain physical activity which would not usually lead to breathlessness. This is known as exertional dyspnea.
As asbestosis progresses, this shortness of breath becomes worse. It eventually persists even when a person is a rest. Physical activity worsens it but resting does not completely resolves the difficulty breathing. There may also be abnormal breathing sounds, like rales. Eventually the oxygen intake is severely restricted and can lead to a bluish discoloration of the skin (cyanosis).
Coughing is another common symptom of asbestosis. It is usually persistent and dry (non-productive). However, sometimes a wet (productive) cough occurs. This mucus production may suggest some other respiratory disease like bronchitis. The wet cough may occur for other reasons, like an infection, rather than the from the asbestosis itself. Coughing, especially a bloody cough, can also be a sign of certain types of lung cancer which may arise as a complication of asbestosis.
Clubbing is an abnormal enlargement of the tips of the fingers and fingernails. It causes the fingertips to have a bulbous appearance and the nails may be abnormally curved. This occurs with many different diseases, particularly conditions associated with reduced oxygen levels in the bloodstream over a long period of time. Clubbing does not occur in every case of asbestosis but is a common finding.
Chest pain may also occur with asbestosis. It is not a common symptom but can occur as the disease progresses, The chest pain is more often associated with the persistent coughing which can strain the chest wall. A pleural effusion or pleural plaque that can develop as a consequence of asbesotosis also causes chest pain, typically one side. Chest pain may also be caused by cancer that can arise as a complication of asbestosis.
Asbestosis presents in a similar manner to many other respiratory diseases. Chest tightness may also be reported as well as a loss of appetite and weight loss. As previously mentioned, unintentional weight loss may also be a sign of certain respiratory cancers that are more likely to arise with asbestos exposure.