Asbestos-related conditions

Asbestosis

In this section we explain what asbestosis is, what the symptoms of asbestosis are and how it’s diagnosed. We also explain what people with asbestosis can do to reduce their symptoms.

Asbestosis is a rare, long-term lung condition. It usually develops around 20-30 years after you have breathed in a considerable amount of asbestos dust in the course of your work.

Symptoms of asbestosis

If you breathe in asbestos fibres, they can get lodged inside your lungs. This can cause scarring and thickening around your air sacs, meaning it’s more difficult for oxygen to reach the blood stream. This scarring leads to your lungs ‘shrinking’ and ‘hardening’. In turn, this results in you becoming short of breath as your lungs cannot hold as much air as they used to. At first this may only happen after you’ve been physically active, but it can eventually become a more constant problem.

Other symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • persistent cough
  • wheeze
  • fatigue or extreme tiredness
  • pain in your chest or shoulder
  • in more advanced cases, clubbed (swollen) fingertips.

Diagnosing asbestosis

If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above and you have been exposed to asbestos, you should discuss this with your GP. Your GP may be able to hear a crackling sound in your lungs and may recommend a chest X-ray which, in some cases, can show the scarring of asbestosis. If it’s likely you have asbestosis, your GP will refer you to a hospital specialist for further tests such as a lung function test and a CT scan of your chest. A CT scan is a special X-ray machine that takes a picture of a cross-section of your body.

Treating asbestosis

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for asbestosis and it’s not possible to reverse the damage to your lungs. However, you can take steps to reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

If your breathlessness limits your activity, pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) might help. PR is a programme of exercise and education for people with different types of lung conditions. Oxygen therapy can also help if you have low levels of oxygen in your bloodstream.

If you smoke, the most important thing you can do is stop smoking. Symptoms of asbestosis are more likely to get worse if you smoke. Smoking also increases the risk of lung cancer if you have asbestosis. Go to the websites below for advice and support to stop smoking in:

Read next: what to do if you think you've been exposed to asbestos

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