Asbestosis Symptoms and Diagnosis

When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can cause inflammation and scarring of lung tissues. Prolonged exposure to these fibers may cause the condition asbestosis, one of over 200 types of pulmonary fibrosis which is also classified as an interstitial lung disease. You may hear your condition referred to by any of these names. Because exposure typically occurred at work, it may also be referred to as an occupational lung disease.

What Are the Symptoms of Asbestosis?

The effects of long-term exposure to asbestos typically don't show up for 10 to 40 years after initial exposure. The most common symptoms are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Chest tightness or chest pain
  • Weight loss from loss of appetite
  • A dry, crackling sound in the lungs while breathing in
  • Wider and rounder than normal fingertips and toes (clubbing)

How Is Asbestosis Diagnosed?

Asbestosis is usually diagnosed by a careful medical history, exposure history and chest X-ray or CT scan that shows scarring of the lung tissues. This information, along with breathing tests, helps your doctor determine how severe your asbestosis is and how well your lung is functioning.

If you have a history of exposure to asbestos and you're experiencing increasing shortness of breath, you should contact your primary care doctor about the possibility of asbestosis. He or she likely will refer you to a doctor specializing in lung problems (pulmonologist). During the visit, your doctor will ask about your breathing, both at rest and during exercise. Your doctor will also ask about your job history in detail to determine how much you were exposed to asbestos. So, it would be a good idea to prepare the following information in advance:

  • Your symptoms and the time they started
  • Treatments given before for the symptoms and how they helped
  • The work you have done over your entire career; the length of time you spent in each job; the nature of the work you performed.
  • The products you were in contact with at work and whether or not you wore protective equipment
  • Smoking history
  • Any old medical records, including chest X-rays or CT scans

During the physical examination, your doctor will listen to your lungs to determine if the sounds are normal or not. Your doctor may then order the following tests:

  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Lung function test

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: June 7, 2024

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