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Last full review/revision Mar 2021| Content last modified Mar 2021
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What is asbestosis?

Asbestos is a mineral fiber used in construction materials. "-Osis" means a disease or condition.

Asbestosis is scarring of your lungs caused by breathing in asbestos dust.

  • Most people have a very low chance of getting asbestosis unless they work with asbestos a lot

  • Asbestosis causes thickening of the membranes that cover your lungs (pleura)

  • Asbestos exposure also increases the risk of lung cancer, particularly the kind called mesothelioma, mainly if you smoke

  • People with asbestosis have trouble breathing and exercising

  • Doctors diagnose asbestosis using chest x-rays and CT scans

  • Doctors treat asbestosis by giving you oxygen and medicines to make breathing easier

What causes asbestosis?

Breathing in asbestos dust causes asbestosis. When inhaled, the asbestos dust sits deep in your lungs and causes scars.

The more you come in contact with asbestos, the more likely you’ll get asbestosis. If you aren’t in contact with asbestos at your job, you have a very low chance of getting asbestosis. People who work with asbestos a lot have the highest chance of asbestosis, for example, people who tear down buildings and miners who dig up minerals that contain asbestos.

What are the symptoms of asbestosis?

Symptoms appear slowly and only after large parts of your lungs have become scarred.

Early symptoms can include:

  • Feeling short of breath

  • Trouble being active or exercising

  • Coughing and wheezing if you smoke cigarettes or have chronic bronchitis

Later symptoms can include:

  • More trouble breathing

  • Finger clubbing (when the tips of your fingers or toes get bigger, and the angle of your nails gets larger)

  • Heart failure (your heart doesn’t pump blood well to the rest of your body)

How can doctors tell if I have asbestosis?

Doctors check for asbestosis if you were exposed to asbestos at work. They may do:

  • Sometimes a lung biopsy (taking a piece of the lung or pleural tissue to look at under a microscope)

How do doctors treat asbestosis?

There's no cure for asbestosis. Doctors treat symptoms with:

  • Oxygen

  • Medicines

  • Behavior changes, such as eating less salt and losing weight to ease heart failure

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation (a breathing program to help you learn how to live with long-term lung disease)

  • Lung transplant (surgery to remove a failing lung and replace it with a healthy one from a donor), if no other treatments work

How can I prevent asbestosis?

If there’s asbestos in your home or workplace, it’s only a concern if your home is undergoing asbestos removal or if you're moving or updating (renovating) your home. Make sure the asbestos is handled by people who are trained to remove asbestos.

If you're a smoker and have been in contact with asbestos, you can reduce your risk of lung cancer by giving up smoking.

If you have asbestosis, you can help prevent getting lung infections by getting a pneumonia and flu vaccine.

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