Asbestosis is caused by long-term, repeated exposure to asbestos, a natural fiber that is used for various industrial purposes, such as insulation and car brake linings. Fibers of asbestos in the air are inhaled and become lodged in the lungs. As a result, lung tissue is scarred and lungs are unable to contract and expand normally. Asbestosis also increases a person's chance of developing asbestos lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer almost always caused by asbestos.
Symptoms of asbestosis typically do not develop until 20 to 30 years after the initial exposure. The main symptom is shortness of breath that worsens over time.
In making a diagnosis of asbestosis, your doctor will start by taking a detailed medical and occupational history, then conducting a thorough medical examination, which includes listening to your lungs with a stethoscope for crackling or high-pitched sounds that may indicate asbestosis.
The following tests may be conducted to make a definite diagnosis:
The first step of asbestosis treatment is to end all contact with asbestos, although most people have been exposed in the past and often are retired altogether by the time they develop symptoms of the disease. Smoking multiplies the risk of lung cancer in asbestos and therefore must be stopped if still ongoing. Our Tobacco Education Center offers classes as well as individual consultations with doctors trained in treating tobacco addiction. We help smokers maximize the likelihood of success in their efforts to quit.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for asbestosis. However, there are a variety of treatments available to help manage symptoms.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.