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:

  • Chest X-ray — A chest X-ray may be taken to look for any abnormalities in your lungs. Asbestosis appears as excessive whiteness in your lung tissue.

  • Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT) — This test involves a series of breathing maneuvers that measure the airflow and volume of air in your lungs, which allows your doctor to objectively assess the function of your lungs.
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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.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

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UCSF Clinics & Centers


Pulmonary Practice at Parnassus
400 Parnassus Ave., Fifth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94143-0359
Phone: (415) 353-2961
Fax: (415) 353-2568
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Pulmonary Practice at Mount Zion
2330 Post St., Suite 420
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 885-7755
Fax: (415) 885-3852
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Tobacco Treatment Center
1701 Divisadero Street, Suite 100
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 885-7895
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