Types of Asbestos-Related Diseases
Asbestos exposure can cause several types of life-threatening cancers, dangerous but noncancerous diseases, and a few low-risk health problems.
There is no way to predict what type of asbestos disease (if any) someone will suffer from if they’ve been exposed. It depends on where the asbestos fibers end up getting stuck in the body, among other factors not fully understood by medical professionals.
Below, get a breakdown of common asbestos-related diseases and how they develop.
Mesothelioma & Other Cancers
Asbestos is a known carcinogen linked to several types of cancers. The most common of these is mesothelioma, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Mesothelioma is a cancer that can form in the linings of the lungs (pleura), abdomen (peritoneum), heart (pericardium), and testes (tunica vaginalis).
Walter, a U.S. Navy veteran, developed mesothelioma decades after his military service. Walter was a boiler tender in the Navy and knew he worked around asbestos — but was never informed of its dangers.
“I asked them what the material was made out of and they told me it was asbestos. It didn’t kill anybody on the spot that’s for sure, but it took years later when it started catching up with us. But, my understanding [is] that the powers-that-be knew [of the risks].”
– Walter, U.S. Navy Veteran
Other cancers linked to asbestos exposure include:
- Colon cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Rectal cancer
- Stomach cancer
Learn more about the cancers caused by asbestos exposure.
Asbestosis is a non-cancerous but life-threatening disease that occurs when asbestos fibers get stuck in the alveoli, which are tiny air pockets in the lungs that swap oxygen for carbon dioxide. Asbestos fibers irritate the alveoli, causing scarring of the lungs and decreased lung function.
Common symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Chest pain
- Constant cough
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the fingers (clubbing)
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Asbestosis is also linked to other asbestos-related diseases. According to the Mayo Clinic, having asbestosis may increase the risk of lung cancer. This is even more true for those who regularly smoke cigarettes.
There’s no cure for asbestosis — the Cleveland Clinic notes that the lung damage is permanent. However, supplemental oxygen and physical therapy can help ease some of the symptoms. A lung transplant may also be needed in serious cases.
Conrad, a World War II veteran, was diagnosed with asbestosis after serving as an electrician in his post-war career. He later took legal action against the manufacturers of the asbestos-based products that harmed him to secure financial compensation.
Atelectasis is the medical term for when a lung collapses. A specific subset of this condition called rounded atelectasis is very prevalent in those exposed to asbestos.
Rounded atelectasis occurs when the lung lining becomes inflamed and constricts. Microscopic asbestos fibers embedded in the lungs can cause this type of inflammation. The lung then collapses near the pleura and causes a bulge.
Atelectasis may also occur as a side effect to other asbestos-related lung diseases, such as asbestosis, or as a complication from surgery.
Did you know?
If someone goes in for a chest X-ray or another type of imaging scan, the atelectasis may be mistaken for a cancerous tumor.
Fortunately, doctors can treat atelectasis using different methods, including breathing exercises, breathing tubes, and surgery. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) note that atelectasis often improves.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of conditions that limit lung function. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these conditions include emphysema and bronchitis.
COPD develops after long-term exposure to toxic chemicals that irritate the lungs. Over time, the lung damage leads to symptoms like a chronic cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
While smoking causes COPD in many cases, exposure to asbestos may also lead to this condition. For example, the VA granted benefits to a veteran who claimed he developed COPD from being exposed to asbestos and other chemicals while serving in the Vietnam War.
There’s no cure for COPD, but treatments like medications, oxygen therapy, and physical therapy can help patients manage their symptoms.
If you or a loved one has an asbestos-related illness like COPD, medical and financial help may be available. Get a free veterans packet for more information.
Pleural effusions occur when fluid builds up in the lung lining, making it difficult for the affected person to breathe. Asbestos fibers may cause pleural effusions by irritating the lung lining and causing excess fluid production.
Symptoms of pleural effusions include:
- A dry cough that won’t go away
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
That said, many who develop pleural effusions do not have symptoms, according to the VA’s Veterans Health Library.
Did you know?
Effusions are often seen in patients with pleural mesothelioma, as the cancer causes irritation that leads to fluid filling the lung lining.
Pleural effusions may resolve within a few months after they develop, and if they don’t, doctors can drain them using a needle (thoracentesis) or a catheter. Doctors may also use medical-grade talc to dry out the pleura and prevent fluid buildup.
It is common for effusions to recur (come back), however. They can even lead to another asbestos-related lung condition called diffuse pleural thickening.
Diffuse Pleural Thickening
In cases of diffuse pleural thickening, the lung lining becomes stiff and scarred, leading to difficulty breathing.
Diffuse pleural thickening can be caused by asbestos exposure. It may also be a symptom of other asbestos-related diseases like pleural effusions or pulmonary fibrosis. This is because the body’s reaction to these other asbestos-related diseases can cause the pleura to thicken.
The British Lung Foundation (BLF) notes that diffuse pleural thickening doesn’t cause severe symptoms, so treatments are not usually needed. That said, doctors can help patients improve their breathing and manage the other conditions that may have caused the pleura to thicken.
Pleural plaques are buildups of collagen, a natural protein, that appear in the lining of the lungs. The collagen fibers harden into small clumps as part of the body’s immune response to asbestos fibers.
There are no symptoms associated with pleural plaques, and they do not pose a threat to human health. However, recent studies have noted that those with pleural plaques may have a higher risk of mesothelioma or asbestos lung cancer due to their asbestos exposure.
Other Asbestos-Related Diseases
- Peritoneal effusion: This is fluid buildup in the abdominal lining. It is also known as ascites and may be caused by peritoneal mesothelioma. Peritoneal effusions can lead to abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and weight gain, according to the NCI.
- Pericardial effusion: This occurs when fluid builds up in the lining of the heart. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat, swelling of the limbs, and chest pain.
- Pleural fibrosis: This is a term used to describe scarring of the lung lining. It may cause breathing problems or even failure of the respiratory system.
- Pleurisy: Also known as pleuritis, pleurisy is a condition where the lung lining becomes inflamed. Pleurisy causes pain during breathing and is often associated with pleural effusions and atelectasis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Pulmonary fibrosis: While pleural fibrosis indicates the lung lining has been damaged, pulmonary fibrosis indicates the lungs themselves have been scarred. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), pulmonary fibrosis prevents the lungs from properly expanding. The body gets less oxygen as a result.