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One of the reasons that asbestos was such an attractive material in the building trades was its virtual indestructibility. It is that same indestructibility that causes a disabling lung disease called asbestosis.

People working with asbestos were routinely exposed to microscopic fibers and dust which they inhaled. Some of these fibers were expelled through coughing or sneezing, but in many people, the asbestos fibers lodged in the alveoli – the small air sacs that absorb oxygen and filter out toxins from the air that you breathe.

One of the functions of the lungs is to break down and expel invaders into your body. The body reacts to the invasion of asbestos fibers by sending white blood cells to break down germs and other invaders that lodge in your lungs.

Since asbestos can’t be broken down chemically by the body, the body does the next best thing – it creates other cells to surround the asbestos fibers. Those cells, called fibroblasts, are made of connective scar tissue. Over time, the scar tissue builds up in the lungs, impairing regular lung functioning.

This scarring may reduce the ability of the lungs to deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the blood, and reduce the capacity of the lungs to deal with the pulmonary needs of the body. In severe cases, asbestosis – the name given to the scarring of the lungs by asbestos – can even damage the heart.

Symptoms of asbestosis

The inflammation process begins immediately when asbestos dust or fibers are inhaled. In people who develop asbestosis, though, it continues indefinitely, with the scarring getting worse and worse. It may continue for decades without causing any overt symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they’re often mistaken for something innocuous. The most common first symptoms are a dry cough and shortness of breath. These symptoms usually appear before any abnormalities are visible in X-rays or other chest scans. It could be anywhere from 10 to 50 years between exposure to asbestos and the appearance of symptoms of asbestosis.

As asbestosis progresses, it may cause chest pain, chest tightness, fitful sleep and loss of appetite. The shortness of breath progresses from only happening during exercise to being present even while at rest. The symptoms of advanced asbestosis include a pronounced clubbing of the fingers. Asbestosis is progressive and incurable. There is an increased risk of developing mesothelioma or lung cancer in people who have asbestosis.

Diagnosing asbestosis

Your doctor may suspect asbestosis if you have a dry, hacking cough and shortness of breath and have a history that includes exposure to asbestos dust. He may listen to your lungs for a ‘crackling’ sound when you breathe, or order chest X-rays to look for signs of scarring. Pulmonary function tests that involve blowing into a tube can help measure your lung capacity and their ability to exchange gasses as they’re supposed to be doing. He may order CT (computerized tomography) scans which can give a clearer picture of your lungs than a chest X-ray.

Complications due to asbestosis

Asbestosis can restrict the air flow in your lungs severely. It can also lead to other conditions, including:

  • Pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in your lungs, when the buildup of scar tissue constricts the capillaries needed for air exchange
  • Heart problems resulting from pulmonary hypertension. Your heart will have to work harder to pump blood through your lungs, and will try to compensate by thickening the walls of the right ventricle so that it can hold more blood. In time, the heart wears out from working so hard.
  • Lung cancer is more likely in people who have asbestosis. If you also smoke, your chances of getting lung cancer when you already have asbestosis are about 90 times greater than if you don’t smoke.
  • COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is another possible complication of asbestosis. It may also cause pleural thickening (thickening of the lining of the lungs), pleural plaques (calcium deposits in the lungs) and pleural effusion (increased fluids around the lungs).
  • Other cancers, including mesothelioma, a malignant cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos.

Treatment for asbestosis

There is no cure for asbestosis, and the damage to the air sacs in the lungs cannot be reversed. The goal of treatment for asbestosis is to slow or stop the progress of the disease and to alleviate symptoms. The most common treatments for asbestosis are:

  • Eliminate exposure to asbestos. In most people, the disease doesn’t get any worse once they are no longer exposed to asbestos dust.
  • Stop smoking. The combination of asbestos exposure and smoking can increase the risk of further lung problems exponentially.
  • Vaccinations may be recommended to keep you from getting the flu or other respiratory illnesses which will put a further strain on your lungs.
  • Medication for high blood pressure may be prescribed to help alleviate the hypertension in your lungs and make it easier for your heart to work.
  • Humidifiers and bronchodilators may be part of a comprehensive treatment plan to help your breathing.

Your rights and asbestosis

Asbestosis is a direct result of exposure to asbestos, whether in your workplace, your home or your environment. Because the asbestos industry conspired for years to conceal the harmful effects of asbestos from their employees, the public and the government, and the conspiracy resulted in hundreds of thousands of people with lung damage, the courts have awarded substantial amounts to people who were affected by asbestos. If your doctor says that you have asbestosis, or if you’ve been exposed to asbestos and have the signs and symptoms of asbestosis, speak with one of our experienced asbestos lawyers to learn what your rights are under the current laws.

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