Asbestosis is a serious lung disease that develops in people who have been exposed to asbestos for a long time. 

What is asbestosis?
What are the causes of asbestosis?
What are the symptoms of asbestosis?
What are the possible tests to diagnose asbestosis?
What are the possible procedures and treatments for asbestosis?
What is the future plan if you have asbestosis?

What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is scarring of the inside of the lungs. It occurs from breathing in asbestos dust.

Being resistant to heat, fire and electricity, asbestos was ideal for use in building, construction and insulation. Asbestos was widely used in Australia from around 1940 to 1987. It was mined in Western Australia and NSW.

There are different types of asbestos – some types are more toxic than others. Blue asbestos (or crocidolite) is most dangerous.

All types of asbestos have been classified as cancer-producing. As a result, asbestos is now banned nation-wide.

Asbestos contains microscopic fibres that enter the air. These fibres are released when the asbestos or asbestos-containing material is cut or ground.

People working with asbestos can inhale these fibres. Inhaled fibres get trapped in the lungs, eventually causing scarring and stiffening. The more fibres you inhale, the worse your condition gets.

Asbestosis is not the same as:

  • pleural plaques
  • the cancer which can develop from asbestos exposure, mesothelioma.

What are the causes of asbestosis?

Asbestosis is caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. Usually, people need to inhale asbestos over many years. Still, even a small amount of exposure to asbestos is not safe.

People who are at risk of asbestosis are:

  • Asbestos miners
  • Builders who have worked with asbestos – especially those involved in fire-proofing, pipe lagging, insulation, roofing
  • Relatives of asbestos workers – people can be exposed to asbestos through coming into contact with asbestos brought home e.g. wives washing overalls
  • Shipyard, wharf and power station workers.

What are the symptoms of asbestosis?

Asbestosis causes breathing-related symptoms, such as:

  • Breathlessness that gets worse over time
  • Crackling sounds when breathing
  • Dry cough
  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swelling or ‘clubbing’ at the end of the fingers
  • Weight loss.

Symptoms usually appear 10-20 years after exposure. This is called the “latency period”.

Asbestosis is linked to a high risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma. If you have been exposed to asbestos, you should quit smoking (phone 13QUIT to get started).

What are the possible tests used to diagnose asbestosis?

Asbestosis causes symptoms that are common to other types of lung disease. To diagnose asbestosis, your doctor will:

  • Examine your breathing – to listen for signs of asbestosis, such as crackling in the lower lungs
  • Order lung function tests, such as spirometry and lung volumes – these tests can also help to rule out other types of lung diseases, like asthma
  • Schedule a chest X-ray – an X-ray can show if there is scarring on the lungs and identify other signs of asbestosis
  • Schedule a chest CT – a CT scan can show asbestosis with better detection than a chest X-ray
  • Talk to you about your work – to determine if you were at risk of asbestos exposure.

What are the possible procedures and treatments for asbestosis?

While asbestosis can’t be ‘cured’, there are treatments to help you breathe better and slow the disease progression.

Common treatments for asbestosis include:

  • Lifestyle changes – eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and drinking plenty of water helps you stay fit and health
  • Medication – some medications can open the airways and help you breathe better
  • New drug treatments – new treatments using anti-fibrotic agents are being developed
  • Oxygen – oxygen therapy helps you to breathe better and gets more air into your lungs
  • Pain relief – your doctor may prescribe pain relief to help you manage your symptoms
  • Quit Smoking – smoking can make your disease worse and cause other lung problems, including lung cancer, so phone 13QUIT to get started
  • Surgery – your doctor may suggest surgery if you have complications or severe symptoms.

What is the future plan if you have asbestosis?

If you have asbestosis, your future plan will focus on maintaining a good quality of life, improving your symptoms and slowing the disease progression.

Your doctor will develop a personalised treatment program for you, including steps such as:

  • Avoiding asbestos – immediately refrain from any further exposure to asbestos
  • Eating a healthy diet – eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and drink several glasses of water each day
  • Exercise – move regularly, and exercise if you feel strong enough
  • Joining a support group – you’re not alone, and community support can help you stay healthy and stick to your treatment plan
  • Medication or oxygen therapy – you may need extra breathing support, as suggested by your doctor
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation – join a dedicated lung health exercise program, designed for people with various types of lung disease
  • Regular vaccinations – the annual flu vaccination will help to keep your lungs healthy
  • Sleep – aim for eight hours of sleep each night, and rest appropriately during the day
  • Washing your hands regularly - prevent spreading colds and flu.

By following your treatment plan and taking active steps to stay healthy, you can improve your symptoms and maintain a good quality of life.

If you have any questions about your condition or treatment options, contact your doctor or medical team. The Bernie Banton Foundation also offers advice.