Asbestos-related conditions

Asbestosis

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

If you breathe in asbestos fibres, they can get lodged inside your lungs and cause scarring. This scarring leads to your lungs shrinking and hardening. In turn, this results in you getting 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:

  • a persistent cough
  • wheezing
  • fatigue or extreme tiredness
  • pain in your chest or shoulder
  • in more advanced cases, clubbed (swollen) fingertips

Diagnosis

If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, 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. This is a special X-ray machine that takes a picture of a cross-section of your body.

Treatment

There is currently no cure for asbestosis once it has developed, as 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. 

  • One of the most important things you can do is stop smoking. Symptoms are more likely to get worse if you smoke and smoking also increases the risk of lung cancer if you have asbestosis. Visit the NHS Smokefree website if you live in England or Wales, the NHS inform website if you live in Scotland and Want 2 Stop website if you line in Northern Ireland. You can also call our helpline on 03000 030 555 for more advice on quitting smoking.
  • If your breathlessness limits your activity, pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) might help. PR is a programme of exercise and education for people with a lung condition.
  • Oxygen therapy can also help if you have low levels of oxygen in your blood.

Next: what to do if you have been exposed to asbestos >

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Last medically reviewed: January 2018. Due for review: January 2021

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.