Asbestosis Pleural Plaque

Understanding asbestosis pleural plaques

Asbestosis pleural plaque is a benign condition caused by exposure to asbestos. It is not actually a form of asbestosis and it doesn't necessarily increase the risk of developing the condition or other life threatening lung diseases linked to asbestos exposure.What is asbestosis pleural plaques?

Typically, pleural plaques aren't detected until around 20 to 40 years after asbestos exposure, at which point they can be picked up be X-rays or CT scans.

What are pleural plaques?

The pleura is a membrane made up of two layers which surround the inside of the rib cage and the outside of the lungs. Exposure to asbestos can cause these layers to thicken with a chalk-like material. Areas which have become thickened are known as pleural plaques.

Sometimes pleural plaques can develop in areas other than the pleural membranes, namely on the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large muscle which runs across the middle of the body to separate the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity and is responsible for inhaling and exhaling air from the lungs.

In around 5-15% of cases, calcium deposits build up on pleural plaques and cause them to harden. This process is known as calcification, and it can have an effect on lung function.

What causes pleural plaques?

Exposure to asbestosis is the primary cause of pleural plaques. When fibers of asbestos are inhaled, they start to accumulate in the lungs and irritate the lung linings. It is not fully understood why this causes plaques, but one theory is that the irritation causes an immune response which leads to the build up of scar tissue on the pleural membranes.

Individuals who have frequently worked around asbestos are at an increased risk of developing the plaques, but studies have found that they can develop due to secondary exposure to the material. In a 2008 study, the families of two individuals who worked around asbestos were assessed for asbestos-related conditions. Pleural plaques were discovered in several family members whom had never directly been exposed to asbestos, but had been exposed to some asbestos fibers via the clothing of those who did regularly work with the material.

The study found that though plaques were present in the subjects, no obvious symptoms had alerted individuals to the condition before the study took place. It concluded that moderate, secondary exposure to asbestos could lead to pleural plaques, and that there could be many more cases of "take home" asbestos exposure than initially thought due to a lack of symptoms and therefore diagnosis in many sufferers.

What are the symptoms of asbestosis pleural plaques?

Individuals with pleural plaques usually do not experience any symptoms. In the more extreme cases in which the pleural plaques become calcified, some may notice a grating sensation or pain as they breathe. If plaques are very extensive, they can restrict lung function and cause breathlessness. However, in the vast majority of cases, the effects of plaques are mild and the condition does not usually have a large impact on day to day well-being.

Symptoms include

  • Persistent cough
  • Breathlessness and wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the chest or shoulder
  • Blood in mucus or phlegm
  • Clubbed fingertips (common in advanced asbestos cases)

What treatment is available for pleural plaques?

Treatment is not usually recommended for pleural plaques, particularly in patients with mild to moderate plaques or who do not show any negative symptoms.

For individuals who suffer from intense pain as a result of the plaques, narcotic analgesics may be prescribed. These types of drugs work on the central nervous system to relieve pain, but they are not without side effects and regular use can lead to mental or physical dependence.

Those who experience breathlessness as a result of pleural plaques may find themselves dealing with anxiety. In these instances, it is recommended that patients find self-management strategies to help with relaxation and mindful breathing.

Can pleural plaques develop into asbestosis or other malignant conditions?

Having pleural plaques does not necessarily increase the risk of asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer. If your lung health has recently been assessed and you've been diagnosed with pleural plaques but no other condition, you don't need to worry that it will increase the risk of more complex conditions arising in the future.

However, individuals who have been exposed to asbestos in the past are at an increased risk of serious lung conditions. It's important to know the symptoms of asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer and seek medical advice if you experience the following symptoms.

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Last Reviewed:
August 22, 2017
Last Updated:
October 17, 2017
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