Like mesothelioma, another serious disease caused by asbestos exposure, asbestosis has a long latency period, meaning that symptoms do not appear for a long period of time, even after exposure has ceased. Once asbestos fibers have been introduced into the body, particularly into the lungs, they are nearly impossible to remove and cause severe health problems over time. In the case of asbestosis, the latency period may be 20 years or more.
The primary symptoms of asbestosis are lung-related. Since accumulations of asbestos fibers in the lungs causes scar tissue to build up, decreased lung function is a key sign. Gradually increasing shortness of breath, dry cough, sporadic chest pain, and tightness in the chest are all pulmonary symptoms of asbestosis. These symptoms will get progressively worse if the disease is left untreated – at first, shortness of breath may only be a problem when the patient is exercising, but eventually it will affect the patient even if he or she is resting.
However, symptoms may not be limited to the lungs – clubbing, a thickening of the tissue under the fingernails that forces the nail to form a convex shape and the tips of the fingers to bulge, may also be an indicator of asbestosis. Clubbing occurs in patients with disorders that prevent oxygen from properly circulating throughout the body, and the lung scarring that is characteristic of asbestosis is such a disorder.
While there is no cure for asbestosis since the damage to the lungs cannot be reversed, there are treatments to alleviate the symptoms. Draining of the fluid around the lungs or wearing an oxygen mask may temporarily relieve shortness of breath. Some patients are helped by the use of inhaled medications usually prescribed for asthma. In severe cases of lung scarring, the patient may need a lung transplantation.
In some cases, patients with asbestosis may also develop malignant mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen. While the symptoms of both diseases are similar, the life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is much lower, since the cancer progresses very quickly once it develops.