Before the 1970s, asbestos products were used in numerous industries—until its harmful health effects became known. Since then, the substance has been heavily regulated by the federal government in the United States. However, if you have had a long career in aircraft or auto mechanics, boiler operations, construction, electricity, railroad work, refinery labor, mill work, shipyard work or labor in an asbestos mine, you were likely exposed to the harmful fiber.

When people think of asbestos, mesothelioma often comes immediately to mind. But that is not the only medical condition that can result from asbestos exposure. There is a lung disease that is so specific to the hazardous fiber that it is named after it: asbestosis. This disease can take 10 to 40 years to develop in individuals who have been exposed to the fiber. Whether it develops and at what severity depends on the amount and duration of the asbestos exposure.

What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that can be mild or highly severe. Caused by inhaling asbestos particles, it causes tissue scarring and shortness of breath due to a buildup in the lungs of the particles—making it difficult for breath to pass through.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and, unfortunately, may not start until significant damage has already been done. These symptoms might include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • No appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Clubbing in the fingertips and toes (unusual widening and rounding)
  • Chest pain

What should you expect from a visit to the doctor for a potential diagnosis?

If you are experiencing the symptoms above and your work history indicates exposure, see your doctor about a potential diagnosis. Tissue scarring from asbestosis, if that is the cause of your symptoms, will show on a simple chest X-ray or CT scan. Additional breathing tests can also help determine the next steps for your treatment or resolve further questions about the severity of your case.

What is the potential treatment?

While it is not possible to reverse the damage, it is possible to treat your symptoms and increase your quality of life. That is the goal of treatment for people who suffer from asbestosis. Some treatment protocols might include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Getting flu shots and pneumonia vaccines to reduce the risk of pulmonary complications
  • If your condition is severe, a breathing tube might be used to supplement your oxygen supply
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation

Asbestosis is a serious condition, but there are ways to mitigate its effects on your daily life. There is also legal recourse to pursue as a worker who has the right to safe working conditions. If you were denied those and are now seriously ill, it may be time to explore your options.