You may already be aware that prolonged exposure to asbestos can put you at risk of developing mesothelioma and other types of lung cancer. However, it can also put you at risk of other respiratory conditions that you may not be aware of. One of these is asbestosis, which results when the fibers you breathe in over a prolonged period of time build up in your lungs.
Asbestosis puts you at greater risk for eventually developing lung cancer. However, even if you do not get cancer, asbestosis can still damage your lungs, making it more difficult to breathe.
To see why asbestosis can be dangerous, you must first understand how the lungs work. Your lungs pull in air as they expand and release it as they contract. Each lung contains tiny sacs called alveoli. It is in the alveoli that the body exchanges the waste product of carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen.
Asbestosis affects the alveoli because that is where the fibers start to collect after you breathe them in. Once in the lungs, the fibers start causing irritation, which can lead to scar tissue. When scar tissue forms in the lungs, they become stiffer, which makes it more difficult for them to contract and expand. Thus, breathing becomes more difficult.
One of the frustrating aspects of asbestosis and related diseases is that symptoms usually do not start showing up until many years, even decades, after the exposure took place. Unsurprisingly, most common symptoms of asbestosis affect the respiratory tract and include the following:
- Chest pain/tightness
- Dry, persistent cough
- Shortness of breath
Additional symptoms include weight loss due to diminished appetite and clubbing of the fingers. When clubbing occurs, the tips of the fingers become rounder and wider than they would be ordinarily.
While there is no way to reverse the damage that asbestosis causes in the lungs, severe symptoms may make you a candidate for a lung transplant. In an advanced case of asbestosis, your doctor may prescribe supplemental oxygen therapy to make breathing easier.