Asbestosis is fibrosis (scarring) of the small airways of the lungs. It starts in the lower sections of both lungs and occurs as a consequence of inhaled asbestos fibres irritating the small airways causing scar tissue to form.
As the amount of fibrosis or scarring increases, it becomes much more difficult for oxygen to travel from the small airways into the blood stream. As the fibrosis increases gradually over time, the sufferer develops respiratory impairment which manifests as shortness of breath on exertion.
What is asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a “dose related” disease. A lot of asbestos fibre has to be inhaled over a long period of time for asbestosis to develop. One off or brief exposures to asbestos cannot cause asbestosis. People diagnosed with asbestosis have worked with asbestos products for a long time. As an illustration, an asbestos factory worker who worked daily in a factory setting where there was asbestos dust in the air all of the time would have to work in that environment for about 12 months to develop asbestosis. Other occupations who are at risk of developing asbestosis include power station workers, workers who installed asbestos installation and carpenters or builders who worked consistently with asbestos products over a number of years.
Asbestosis is a progressive disease but it does not always progress to the point where it causes death. The degree to which asbestosis progresses depends on the duration and intensity of exposure.
Symptoms of asbestosis
Symptoms of mild to moderate asbestosis include a dry cough and increasing breathlessness on exertion. Moderate to severe asbestosis produces severe shortness of breath on exertion and the sufferer will require oxygen to assist with breathing.
A diagnosis of asbestosis is usually made on clinical grounds. That is, the sufferer has a chest x-ray or CT scan and is examined by a respiratory specialist who makes a medical judgment as to whether the sufferer has asbestosis. The only means by which a certain diagnosis can be provided is for a biopsy to be performed. However, as there is no cure for asbestosis, and as a biopsy proven diagnosis will not influence the medical treatment provided, it is extremely rare for a sufferer to have asbestosis diagnosed after a biopsy.