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Asbestosis

What is it?

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease characterized by a scarring of lung tissues, which leads to long-term breathing complications. The disease unfortunately does not have a cure.

What causes it?

It is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos, but may not be diagnosed until decades after the exposure occurred.

Exposure occurs when someone breathes in the dangerous fibres. Extended exposure can lead to an accumulation of the fibres in lung tissues, setting the stage for long-term fibrosis (scarring). Over time, lung tissues thicken, causing pain and restricting breathing.

Symptoms

The primary symptoms are decreased tolerance for physical exertion and shortness of breath. The severity of the symptoms is often related to the amount and length of asbestos exposure. Doctors prescribe breathing treatments, prescription medication and sometimes surgery for people with asbestosis.

The prognosis is often positive. Because asbestosis is not a form of lung cancer or mesothelioma, people can live many years, even decades, with the disease. However, because the condition gets worse over time, patients will require increased treatment as they age.

How Is It Diagnosed?

When diagnosing asbestosis, your GP will first ask about your symptoms and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope (a medical instrument used to listen to the heart and lungs). If your lungs have been affected by asbestos, they will usually make a crackling noise when you breathe in. Your GP will also ask about your work history, particularly about periods when you may have been exposed to asbestos, how long you may have been exposed, and whether you were issued with any safety equipment, such as a face mask, when you were working.

If asbestosis is suspected, you will be referred to a specialist in lung diseases for tests to confirm any lung scarring. These may include:

  • a chest X-ray – to detect abnormalities in the structure of your lungs that could be caused by asbestosis
  • a computerised tomography (CT) scan of the lungs – which produces more detailed images of the lungs and the membranecovering the lungs and can help identify less obvious abnormalities
  • lung function tests – to assess the impact of damage of the lungs, determine how much air your lungs can hold and assess how well oxygen crosses the membrane of the lungs into your bloodstream

Before confirming a diagnosis of asbestosis, the chest specialist will also consider and rule out other possible causes of lung inflammation and scarring, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Treatment

Unfortunately there is no cure for asbestosis, as the damage to the lungs is irreversible. However, you can take steps to reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Not smoking

If you have been diagnosed with asbestosis and you smoke, it’s very important to stop as soon as possible. Smoking can make your symptoms of breathlessness worse and significantly increase your risk of developing lung cancer at a later stage.

Vaccinations

If you have asbestosis, your lungs will be more vulnerable to infection. It’s recommended that you have the influenza (flu) vaccination to protect against flu, and the pneumococcal
vaccination to protect you from the bacteria that can cause serious conditions, such as pneumonia. Your GP can arrange for you to have these vaccinations.

You will need the flu vaccine every year to ensure you stay protected. Most people only require one dose of the pneumococcal vaccine, although additional booster shots may be recommended if your general health is poor.

Long-term oxygen therapy

If you have severe asbestosis, your body may not be getting all the oxygen it needs to function properly. Oxygen therapy may be recommended if you have low levels of oxygen in your blood.

Oxygen therapy is supplied through a machine called an oxygen concentrator, which purifies oxygen from the air in the room and produces a more oxygen-rich supply of air.


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