Prolonged exposure to asbestos can lead to a condition called asbestosis. This occurs when asbestos fibers irritate the lungs, forming scar tissue. Scarred lung tissue is stiffer and does not expand as well as healthy tissue. This makes breathing more difficult.
Symptoms of asbestosis typically do not emerge for many decades. By the time a person becomes symptomatic, there has been irreparable damage. The Mayo Clinic explains what diagnosis of asbestosis involves.
Because symptoms of asbestosis mimic those of other respiratory conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose. The first step in diagnosis is typically a physical examination by a doctor. During the exam, the doctor listens to the lungs using a stethoscope, listening for a particular type of breath sound called crackling. Part of the exam also involves taking the patient’s personal and medical history to assess the risk of exposure to asbestos.
Pulmonary function tests
Doctors can assess how effectively and efficiently the lungs are working using pulmonary function tests. One type of PFT involves blowing into a measuring device called a spirometer to measure the amount of air going in and out of the lungs. Other PFTs measure blood oxygen levels.
Doctors can take pictures of the lungs using radiographic imaging, such as a CT scan or a chest X-ray.
A doctor who suspects asbestosis may want to perform a procedure to test for abnormal cells or asbestos fibers in the lungs. One type of test is thoracocentesis, which involves withdrawing fluid from one of the lungs by inserting a needle into it through the chest wall.
A bronchoscopy involves inserting a tube into the trachea, more commonly known as the windpipe, through the mouth. The tube has a camera attached to take pictures of the airways. During a bronchoscopy, it may be possible to take a sample of lung tissue or fluid for a biopsy test.
There is no cure for asbestosis. Treatment usually focuses on improving symptoms, preventing complications, and slowing disease progression.