What Are Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases?

Asbestos exposure results in many types of lung diseases of varying severity. While it is commonly understood that asbestos exposure causes lung cancer, which is certainly true, the greater picture is much more complicated. Asbestos fibers are incredibly damaging to the tissues of lungs

Asbestos-Related Lung Disease

Exposure to asbestos while on a job site is the most common cause of mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers are inhaled, then they lodge in the mesothelial tissue where they result in cellular damage that promotes the growth of tumors. Types include pleural, peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma, affecting the lungs, digestive tract or heart respectively. The latency period is long, up to 50 years, and symptoms are hardly noticeable; as a result, this disease usually kills those who develop it. Bowl obstruction, fluid buildup, weight loss, and chronic pain near tumor sites are the late-stage symptoms.

Lung Cancer
Lung cancer caused by asbestos is rare compared to lung cancer caused by smoking. Symptoms do not develop for a long time, though they will develop sooner if exposure is high and other co-carcinogens are present such as those from cigarettes.

There is no cure for this chronic lung disease which extensively scars lung tissue. The only cause of asbestosis is exposure to asbestos, hence the name of this disease. Treatment is needed over the years and decades following exposure at an increasing rate as asbestosis worsens, though patients can live decades after diagnosis. Symptoms include coughing, chest pain and labored breathing even during simple physical exertion.

Pleural Effusion
This is a symptom — excess fluid accumulation in the pleural cavity — that points to a person having mesothelioma. Although these effusions aren’t harmful on their own, with asbestos exposure they occur more frequently and contribute to pleural thickening which does seriously limit respiratory function.

Pleural Plaque
Pleural plaque affects the lining of the lungs or diaphragm, causing these fibers to thicken. Fortunately these plaques are benign and do not result in chronic health problems, lying dormant until generally 20 to 30 years following asbestos exposure. Most patients have no symptoms.

Malignant Mesothelioma, coronal CT scan. Legen...

Malignant Mesothelioma, coronal CT scan. Legend: the malignant mesothelioma is indicated by yellow arrows, the central pleural effusion is marked with a yellow star. (1) right lung, (2) spine, (3) left lung, (4) ribs, (5) aorta, (6) spleen, (7) left kidney, (8) right kidney, (9) liver. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Asbestos exposure is the cause of a wide variety of diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural effusion and pleural plaque. Some patients only experience mild consequences of their exposure while others are diagnosed and die within a short period of time. Very few persons who are exposed to asbestos escape the reach of its danger.