What is Asbestosis?

Resulting from exposure to asbestos fibers, asbestosis is a chronic lung disease characterized by shortness of breath and other respiratory issues. Related symptoms can by mild, severe, or somewhere in between for those suffering from the condition. Asbestosis is often difficult to diagnose and treat since symptoms typically appear years after exposure.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the term used to refer to several fibrous minerals with appealing characteristics that made it a popular choice for use in building and pipe insulation and the production of other commercial products. After many years of widespread use, it was discovered that all types of asbestos fibers pose serious health risks.

What are the Symptoms of Asbestosis?

Asbestosis symptoms are often vague in nature and similar to those associated with many other respiratory conditions. As fibers become lodged in tiny sacs within the lungs (alveoli) scar tissue forms and progressively reduces lung capacity.

Symptoms include

  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent coughing episodes
  • Loss of appetites
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Wider fingernails and toenails (clubbing)
  • Chest pain or tightness

Asbestosis Causes

Asbestosis can be caused by long-term exposure to high levels of asbestos dust. In the case of asbestosis, the alveoli (sacs inside your lungs where blood and carbon dioxide are exchanged) are exposed to the dust fibers. These dust fibers can irritate your lungs, scarring the tissue and causing stiffness, which makes it harder to breathe. Once they become too stiff, your lungs cannot properly expand and contract.

Whether you will be (or have been) affected depends upon how much you were exposed to, how long you were exposed to it, and what kind of asbestos it was and where it came from. If you worked around asbestos in the past, you may have a higher risk of developing asbestosis. Fireproofing and construction jobs have had high levels of asbestos in the more recent past. You have a higher risk if you worked in the 1970s as a boiler operator, electrician, asbestos miner, shipyard worker, railroad worker, building construction worker, auto mechanic, aircraft mechanic, or if you worked removing asbestos insulation in old buildings.

How is Asbestosis Treated?


Diagnosis involves chest X-rays, CT scans, and pulmonary function tests to measure air flow within lungs.


There is no treatment that can reverse lung damage from asbestos fibers. The purpose of any treatment for asbestosis, typically including prescription medications and periodic monitoring, is to slow the progression of the condition and maintain lung functioning as much as possible. Surgery is sometimes recommended.

Since asbestos was widely used in the construction industry and many military and government projects, people who held such occupations prior to the late 1970s are often affected by asbestosis. Symptoms may show up anywhere from 10 to 40 years after initial exposure. Consequently, patients are frequently diagnosed when asbestosis is in its later stages, although symptoms can often be managed for many years after diagnosis.

Asbestosis Prevention

The best way to prevent asbestosis is to limit your exposure to asbestos. If you still have to work around the fibers, follow the rules for handling it. Some employers allow the use of masks or respirators to prevent asbestos from making its way into your body. Usually asbestos in houses doesn’t pose a danger to your health, unless it’s airborne.

Quitting smoking is another way to prevent asbestosis. If you already have asbestosis, smoking only increases your risk of developing lung cancer. Also, you may want to get the flu shot and the pneumococcal vaccine because your lungs are more susceptible to infections like the flu and pneumonia.

While asbestosis cannot be cured, it can be treated with the use of oxygen therapy (helps with shortness of breath), respiratory physiotherapy (removes secretions from the lungs), and medications that relieve pain and thin secretions from the lungs.

Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2016
Last Updated:
June 11, 2018