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Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a rare, long-term lung condition caused by asbestos exposure. Find out more about the symptoms, how it's diagnosed and what treatment is available.

What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by breathing in large amounts of asbestos dust for a long time. The asbestos gets lodged in the lungs causing scarring around the air sacs (alveoli), which means oxygen can't reach the bloodstream easily. The scarring leads to the lungs hardening, making it more difficult to breathe because the lungs cannot hold as much air as they used to.

What causes asbestosis?

Asbestosis is caused by long-term exposure to asbestos, a material used in the past for cement, insulation, car parts, and some roof and floor tiles. The fibres in asbestos break down into little pieces when they're damaged, released into the air and then breathed in. These fibres get stuck in the lungs, and over a long time, can cause permanent lung damage.

Who's at risk of asbestosis?

Your chance of getting asbestosis increases depending on how much asbestos you've been exposed to and the duration. The more exposure you've had, the greater the risk of asbestosis.

If you worked in an industry like building or construction in the past, particularly from the 1970s to the 1990s, you might have been exposed to asbestos. Other professions where you may have a higher risk of getting asbestosis are:

  • Shipyard workers
  • Railways engineers
  • Machine operators
  • Mechanics
  • Metalworkers and welders
  • Pipefitters
  • Oil refinery workers
  • Power plant workers
  • Firefighters

These days, you're only likely to come into contact with asbestos if your job involves working in older buildings. Examples are:

  • Heating and ventilation engineers
  • Electricians
  • Plumbers
  • Construction workers
  • Demolition workers

Generally speaking, it's safe to be around materials made with asbestos as long as they are not damaged. As long as the asbestos fibres are contained, they won't get into the air and you won't inhale them.

Symptoms of asbestosis

Asbestosis is a disease that causes a range of symptoms. Often the symptoms don't happen until many years after the first asbestos exposure. It can sometimes take as long as 20 - 40 years from the initial asbestos exposure for symptoms to develop.
Asbestosis causes:

  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Pain in the chest or shoulder
  • Tiredness
  • Swollen or 'clubbed' fingertips

How is asbestosis diagnosed?

It's essential to see a doctor if you're having any of the asbestosis symptoms listed above, particularly if you think you've been exposed to asbestos.

A GP will listen to your breathing using a stethoscope and ask about your work history. They may refer you to a specialist lung doctor if they think you may have asbestosis.

Tests to diagnosis asbestosis include:

  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Lung function test

Asbestosis life expectancy

The outlook for asbestosis varies, depending on how much damage there is to the lungs and whether you have any other conditions that might affect it.
Asbestosis can get worse over time. If you have a severe case, it may shorten your life expectancy, but in most cases, the disease progresses very slowly or not at all.

However, having asbestosis puts you at a higher risk of getting severe complications that can be potentially life-threatening, including:

  • Pleural disease – where the thin tissue (membrane) covering the lungs becomes thicker, making it harder to breathe and causing pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Mesothelioma – a type of incurable cancer that affects the lining of the lungs or stomach
  • Lung cancer – a type of cancer that starts in the lungs

Treatment for asbestosis

If you have an asbestosis diagnosis, there's no cure, and there's no way to reverse the lungs' damage. But some treatments can help:

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) – exercises and education to help manage the symptoms
  • Oxygen therapy – oxygen breathed in through a mask or a small plastic tube inside your nostrils
  • Inhaler to help you breathe (if your symptoms are mild)

Other things you can do if you have asbestosis:

  • Stop smoking – if you smoke, it can make your symptoms worse and increase lung cancer risk.
  • Get your vaccinations – if you have asbestosis, you're more vulnerable to infections. It's important to ask a doctor about the flu vaccination to protect against the flu, and the pneumococcal vaccination to prevent serious conditions like pneumonia.
Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi