Types of Asbestos-Related Pleural Diseases
Pleural mesothelioma is an incurable cancer that starts in the lung lining and is only caused by asbestos exposure. It is not to be confused with asbestos-related lung cancer, which affects the lungs themselves.
Asbestos causes pleural mesothelioma by irritating healthy cells in the pleura. After 20 to 50 years, this long-term irritation causes healthy cells to mutate into cancer cells. The cancer cells then divide at an out-of-control rate, causing pleural tumors to form in the chest wall.
Common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:
- Persistent cough
- Rib, shoulder, or back pain
- Weight loss
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Walter served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and was exposed to asbestos through his work as a boiler tender during this time. Over 40 years after his service, Walter developed symptoms such as a cough and shortness of breath. An X-ray revealed a cancerous mass in his lungs. Walter had pleural mesothelioma.
Pleural mesothelioma is broken down into four stages depending on how far the cancer has spread through the body. Those in the earlier stages (1 and 2) qualify for more life-extending treatments since the cancer has not spread far. However, there are treatments available no matter when someone is diagnosed.
Get a free veterans packet to learn about VA benefits for pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
A pleural effusion occurs when there’s an excess buildup of fluid in the lining of the lungs.
The pleural space typically contains a little bit of fluid at all times. This fluid helps the two layers of the pleura move properly as someone breathes, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
However, an excess amount of this fluid can accumulate when the pleura becomes irritated. This may lead to symptoms such as difficulty breathing or a chronic cough.
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Over 90% of patients with mesothelioma will suffer from pleural effusions as well, according to a report from Pulmonology Advisor. Those with other cancers like lung cancer may also suffer from effusions.
Blood and lymph fluid can build up in the pleura too. This can lead to subtypes of pleural effusions.
Pleural effusion subtypes include:
This is a pleural effusion where chyle, a type of lymph fluid formed in the small intestine, fills the lung lining. It causes symptoms such as breathing problems and chest pain.
Chylothorax may be a sign of pleural mesothelioma in rare cases. For example, the journal Respirology Case Reports noted that a 34-year-old woman was diagnosed with mesothelioma after suffering from recurring bouts of chylothorax. In these cases, chylothorax is considered malignant (cancerous).
Hemothorax, also known as a hemorrhagic pleural effusion, occurs when blood builds up in the pleura. The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that this condition causes a wide range of symptoms, including shallow breath, chest pain, low blood pressure, and a rapid heartbeat.
Pleural plaques are white, chalky clumps of a protein called collagen that forms the lining of the lungs. It is the most common pleural disease related to asbestos exposure, according to Cancer Therapy Advisor.
Unlike most other asbestos-related pleural diseases, pleural plaques are usually harmless and do not require treatment. In most cases, patients won’t have any symptoms.
However, pleural plaques do mean that someone has been exposed to asbestos and, in turn, are at risk of developing mesothelioma or other pleural diseases later on.
The VA has awarded benefits to veterans who developed pleural plaques stemming from military asbestos exposure in several past cases. See if you can file for VA benefits with help from our team.
Pleural thickening occurs when the lung lining becomes scarred due to long-term irritation from asbestos fibers. This scarring limits the pleura’s ability to move and leads to difficulty breathing among those affected.
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When the scarring is spread throughout the pleura and chest wall, it’s known as diffuse pleural thickening.
Pleural thickening can be directly caused by asbestos exposure or indirectly from other asbestos-related diseases like pleural effusions. Fortunately, the symptoms of pleural thickening are usually mild, so treatments aren’t typically needed.
Pleurisy, also known as pleuritis, is the inflammation of the pleura’s two layers. When someone has pleurisy, the pleura’s inflamed layers brush up against one another, making breathing painful and difficult.
The main symptoms of pleurisy are shortness of breath and chest pain. Some patients may also experience a buildup of pus in the pleura in a condition called purulent pleuritis (empyema).
According to the Cleveland Clinic, patients usually develop pleurisy after dealing with other health problems like asbestosis (a noncancerous lung disease caused by asbestos) or lung cancer.
Pleurisy responds well to treatments in most cases, but it may come back if it’s caused by an underlying health problem like cancer.
Pneumothorax occurs when air builds up in the pleura. In severe cases, an excessive amount of air causes the lungs to collapse.
Symptoms of pneumothorax include:
- Chest pain
- Cyanosis (skin turns blue due to lack of oxygen)
- Difficulty breathing
People are more likely to develop pneumothorax if they have underlying lung problems. The condition may even be a sign of mesothelioma.
Multiple cases have been reported where people initially suffering from pneumothorax were later diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. Some patients with pneumothorax may also suffer from pleurisy.