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Asbestos-related conditions

Pleural plaques

In this section we explain what pleural plaques are.

Inside your chest there are two thin layers of cells - called the pleura or pleural membrane. Each layer is about as thin as the skin of a balloon. The inner layer covers your lungs and the outer layer lines the inside of your rib cage.  If you have been exposed to asbestos, it’s common for areas of the pleura to become thickened. These areas are called pleural plaques.

It’s thought that around 36,000 to 90,000 people per year develop pleural plaques in the UK. Pleural plaques are considered harmless and many people in the UK have them, often without even knowing about it.

Pleural plaques image

If you have pleural plaques, it doesn’t mean that you will go on to get a more serious disease.

Being exposed to asbestos does increase your risk of developing a serious lung condition such as asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer. But there is no scientific evidence that having pleural plaques increases the risk any further. So, if you’ve been exposed to asbestos you should not worry if you’re told you have pleural plaques.

Pleural plaques aren’t the same as asbestosis and they aren’t a form of cancer.

Symptoms of pleural plaques

Pleural plaques don’t cause any symptoms (they are asymptomatic). You can live with pleural plaques without having any long-term problems with your health. You may not even know you have them.

It’s understandable to be concerned if you are told you have pleural plaques, as this is a sign you’ve been exposed to asbestos in the past. But it’s important to remember pleural plaques are benign (non-cancerous).

If you do have symptoms in your chest such as breathlessness, cough or pain, it’s important not to think these are caused by the pleural plaques and ignore them. The symptoms are more likely to be caused by another condition that might need attention.

Diagnosing pleural plaques

If you have been exposed to asbestos and have no chest problems, there is normally no need to have a chest X-ray or CT scan, unless your health care professional recommends it. The risk associated with exposure to X-rays or a CT-scan is far greater than the benefit of finding out if you have pleural plaques.

Diagnosing pleural plaques normally happens when a person is treated for something else, and a chest X-ray or CT scan shows them to be present.

Treating pleural plaques

There is no need to treat pleural plaques and they cannot be removed.

If you smoke, you should seek help to quit. This will reduce your chances of developing a smoking-related lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or lung cancer.

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

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