Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases

Also known as Asbestosis, Mesothelioma
Asbestos-related lung diseases are caused by exposure to asbestos fibers.
Overview

Asbestos is a mineral that is found naturally in rocks and soil. Until the 1970s, when it was discovered that asbestos increased the risk for lung disease, it was widely used in many industries in the United States. For example, asbestos was used to fireproof drywall, insulate pipes, and strengthen cement. People who work or used to work around asbestos are at risk for asbestos-related lung diseases, as are their family members.

Asbestos fibers are very thin and can escape into the air. When you breathe in, they can get stuck deep in your lungs. The fibers remain in your lung tissue for a long time and may cause scarring and inflammation. This can lead to several types of asbestos-related lung diseases and lung problems, including:

  • Asbestosis, in which the lung tissue becomes scarred
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma, which is cancer of the tissue around the lungs
  • Pleural effusion, a type of pleurisy
  • Pleural plaques, which are hard structures around the lungs and diaphragm
  • Thickening of the tissues around the lungs

Signs and symptoms of asbestos-related lung diseases vary depending on which type of disease you have and how much it has damaged your lungs. You may have shortness of breath or a chronic cough. It may take 10 to 40 or more years after exposure to asbestos for signs or symptoms to appear. Your doctor will diagnose an asbestos-related lung disease based on your past exposure to asbestos, your symptoms, a physical exam, and results of tests such as a chest X-ray or chest CT scan.

Tell your doctor if you think you may have been exposed to asbestos. Your doctor can watch for symptoms or complications and start treatment early, depending on the type of asbestos-related lung disease you have. No treatment can reverse the effects of asbestos on your lungs. However, treatments may help relieve symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, prevent complications, and help you live longer. If you have shortness of breath or other problems breathing, and oxygen levels in your blood are too low, your doctor may recommend oxygen therapy. If you have lung cancer or mesothelioma, you may receive chemotherapy or surgery.

If you have an asbestos-related lung disease, you will need lifelong care, including regular chest X-rays, chest CT scans, and pulmonary function tests. If you smoke, find support to help you quit. Smoking increases your risk of lung cancer if you have been exposed to asbestos.

Visit Asbestos for more information on this topic.

Research for Your Health

The NHLBI is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health (NIH)—the Nation’s biomedical research agency that makes important scientific discovery to improve health and save lives. We are committed to advancing science and translating discoveries into clinical practice to promote the prevention and treatment of heart, lung, blood, and sleep disorders, including asbestos-related lung diseases. Learn about current and future NHLBI efforts to improve health through research and scientific discovery.

Improving health with current research
- Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases

Learn about the following ways the NHLBI continues to translate current research into improved health for people with asbestos-related lung diseases. Research on this topic is part of the NHLBI’s broader commitment to advancing lung disease scientific discovery.

  • NHLBI’s Specialized Center of Research in Occupational and Immunologic Lung Disease. Our Center collected data that have helped us control and prevent acute and chronic lung damage due to inhalation of environmental and occupational agents. Visit the Specialized Center of Research in Occupational and Immunologic Lung Disease for more information.
  • Studying asbestos-related lung changes over time. Researchers have used data from the NHLBI’s long-term Framingham Heart Study (FHS) to study the effects of asbestos on the lungs.
  • Understanding how asbestos affects the lungs. NHLBI-funded studies in the 1980s and 1990s helped us understand how asbestos damages the lungs. Studies looking at workers and other people exposed to asbestos identified plaques, as well as thickening in the lungs, which led to decreased lung function and changes to the immune system.

Advancing research for improved health
- Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases

In support of our mission, we are committed to advancing asbestos-related lung diseases research in part through the following ways.

Participate in NHLBI Clinical Trials

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) leads or sponsors many studies aimed at preventing, diagnosing, and treating heart, lung, blood, and sleep disorders.

Are you an adult who has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis or an advanced lung cancer?

This study aims to see whether a new imaging dye for positron emission tomography (PET) is effective at looking at fibrosis in lung cancer and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). Participants will be given the imaging dye and then receive a PET scan. To participate in this study, you must either be between 18 and 80 years old and have lung cancer or be a healthy volunteer or be between 50 and 80 years old and have IPF. This study is located in Boston, Massachusetts.

More Information

Non-NHLBI resources
- Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases