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Asbestos Exposure: Symptoms and Diseases

A significant number of people have developed serious illnesses after coming into regular contact with asbestos, a material once widely used in construction and consumer products. Illnesses caused by asbestos range from minor respiratory problems to cancer. Since patients often don't show symptoms until several decades after exposure, new cases of asbestos-related diseases continue to surface.

This article provides an overview of asbestos exposure symptoms and diseases. See FindLaw's Toxic Chemicals and Materials section for related articles.

Asbestos Exposure: Illnesses

Asbestos is a mineral that was widely used in construction, manufacturing, and industry up until the late twentieth century (although it's still used in limited applications today). Illnesses associated with asbestos are typically referred to as occupational diseases, since people working in environments with asbestos (especially people who directly handled materials containing asbestos) are at a high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses. Construction workers, manufacturing workers, navy veterans, and auto mechanics make up a significant percentage of patients diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses. Those who live in the same household as those exposed to asbestos are also at risk.

Asbestos causes significant health problems when its airborne fibers are inhaled. These fibers can settle in the lungs, neighboring tissue, and even spread to other parts the body. Over time, these fibers can scar lung tissue and cause cells in the lungs and surrounding areas to become cancerous. Patients may first begin to notice a problem 20 to 50 years after being exposed to asbestos, leaving them unaware of their condition until symptoms become noticeable.

Common Asbestos Illnesses

1. Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the most common asbestos-related illness. More patients develop lung cancer than any other asbestos-related illness, and lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Common asbestos exposure symptoms that may indicate lung cancer include the following:

  • Coughing
  • Chronic cough (also called "smoker's cough")
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bone pain
  • Headache

There are many risk factors that can make patients more likely to develop lung cancer. Chief among these is smoking, the leading cause of lung cancer. Patients who are exposed to asbestos and who also smoke are far more likely to develop lung cancer than patients who were only exposed to asbestos. Other lung cancer risk factors include exposure to second hand smoke, exposure to certain gases and chemicals, and a family history of lung cancer.

Patients diagnosed with lung cancer have limited treatment options. Surgery can remove cancerous tissue, while chemotherapy and radiation treatment can kill cancer cells. There are also a number of drugs available that seek to prevent the growth or spread of cancer. However, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 17.8 percent (as of June 2015). Many treatment options seek to ease symptoms rather than eliminate the cancerous cells.

2. Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the thin layer of tissue surrounding the internal organs. The disease is highly lethal. Only around 10 percent of mesothelioma patients survive for more than five years after being diagnosed, and the average survival time following diagnosis is one year. But since symptoms typically don't show up for a long time after exposure to asbestos, illnesses such as mesothelioma are rarely detected early.

Patients can develop one of four types of mesothelioma. Around 70-80 percent of patients develop mesothelioma affecting the lungs (Pleural Mesothelioma). Around 10-20 percent of patients develop abdominal mesothelioma (Peritoneal Mesothelioma). Uncommon forms of mesothelioma affect the tissue lining the heart (Pericardial Mesothelioma) and testicles (Mesothelioma of the Tunic Vaginis). These two types of mesothelioma affect around 1 percent of patients.

While each form of mesothelioma can have different symptoms, common asbestos exposure symptoms that indicate possible mesothelioma include pain, swelling, and unusual lumps in the affected area. Unexplained weight loss is another symptom that's common to all forms of mesothelioma. There's no cure or effective treatment to reverse mesothelioma.

3. Asbestosis

Another common asbestos-related illness is asbestosis, a form of pneumoconiosis. Asbestosis involves the scarring of lung tissue, often causing shortness of breath and other lung-related problems. Patients with asbestosis may also experience coughing, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, and similar symptoms.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for this disease. Some treatments can relieve these symptoms and prevent the asbestos exposure illness from worsening over time -- but once the damage is done by asbestos, illness from asbestos cannot be reversed. Doctors may prescribe oxygen treatment for patients with significant breathing problems. Some patients with severe symptoms may be candidates for lung transplant surgery.

Do You Have an Asbestos Illness? Get a Free Initial Legal Review Today

Lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis are difficult diseases to treat, often leading to time away from work and considerable medical expenses. An asbestos lawsuit can allow patients to receive compensation for their medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Before deciding on a course of action, you may want to get started with a free initial claim evaluation from an attorney with asbestos experience.

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