Asbestosis – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


Asbestosis can affect people who have dealt with asbestos in their professional lives. This fiber has been widely used since the 19th century, especially in the construction industry and for workwear because of its excellent heat resistance and insulating properties. The use of asbestos has been banned in Germany since 1993 and throughout the EU since 2005 because of its harmful effects on health.

What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is one of the so-called black lung diseases. It is caused by inhaling the smallest asbestos particles, the fiber dust. Asbestosis can still occur even if the patient has not been exposed to the harmful substance for many years.

It can take between fifteen and thirty years for the disease to break out. The actual length of time depends, among other things, on how intensively the patient was exposed to the damaging asbestos material and over what period of time this happened.


If asbestos dust is inhaled, the responsible cells in the lungs can neither completely break down the fibers nor transport them away as their job should actually be. The result is an accumulation of harmful substances, which leads to what is known as fibrosis .

The term describes an increase in the connective tissue in the lungs between the alveoli , which must remain mobile for breathing , and the blood vessels. Parts of the lungs scar and harden. The lower lung sections are particularly affected. You are no longer as stretchy as before, and breathing becomes increasingly difficult.

As a consequence, shortness of breath usually occurs . In addition, there is a strong dry cough , often together with viscous sputum. Chest pain when breathing. The patient’s physical fitness is limited.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

Depending on its severity, asbestosis can cause various symptoms. Years often pass between exposure and the appearance of the first symptoms. Eventually, however, there is inflammation in the lung and pleura tissue, which becomes noticeable through various respiratory problems .

Most of those affected suffer from shortness of breath , dry cough and sputum, often associated with severe pain and increasing discomfort. Hoarseness can also occur as a result of asbestos lungs or any secondary diseases such as lung or throat cancer . The color of the voice changes significantly and the voice sounds increasingly brittle as the disease progresses.

Initially, the breathing difficulties mainly occur during physical exertion. Later, there are also problems during periods of rest, and finally the asbestosis takes a chronic course. External signs of asbestos lungs are the thickened ends of the fingers, which resemble the shape of drumsticks .

In addition , the skin turns bluish , especially on the fingers, lips and in the mouth. In later stages, asbestosis can lead to the development of tumors . Such a degeneration of the cells is manifested by shortness of breath, pressure pain in the lungs and other symptoms that depend on the location and size of the tumor.

Diagnosis & History

Since a very long time can often elapse between contact with asbestos and the appearance of the first symptoms, the connection between complaints and illness is not always immediately recognizable. For the diagnosis by the specialist, it must therefore be clarified in a conversation whether the patient belongs to one of the occupational groups particularly at risk of lung diseases .

The symptoms are usually clearer when the general symptoms such as breathing difficulties are accompanied by a worsened general condition. The affected person loses weight, becomes powerless and can often no longer carry out his daily tasks. During the physical exam, the doctor listens to your lungs with a stethoscope . Fibrosis causes typical noises when breathing , which are described as crackling.

The pulmonary function test shows to what extent the values ​​are limited here and whether enough air is still being moved when breathing. Blood and urine samples can complete the diagnosis. An X-ray examination and computer tomography finally show where in the lungs there are fiber deposits. During a bronchoscopy , tissue samples can confirm whether the deposits are asbestos, i.e. asbestosis is present.

In the advanced stage, the disease usually leads to the disability of the patient. It can greatly promote the development of lung cancer .


Complications that arise as a result of asbestosis are almost independent of treatment or therapy because there is currently (still) no way to remove the fine crystal needles made of asbestos from the alveoli. The severity and nature of the complications that arise from asbestosis depend almost exclusively on the cumulative inhaled amount of asbestos needles.

The fact that the complications often only occur years after the asbestos dust has been inhaled has a somewhat fatal effect. Unfortunately, what happens is that the immune system tries to get the tiny mineral needles out of the lung tissue by activating macrophages. However, this doesn’t work, so the macrophages subsequently cause a problem and have to be cleared away by the immune system.

Due to the chronic inflammatory processes that the immune system initiates and maintains, the functional lung tissue is replaced by collagenous, fibrous connective tissue, so that it loses its elasticity and functionality. Immune system responses ultimately cause progressive pulmonary fibrosis.

The lung function is increasingly restricted, resulting in further complications such as shortness of breath, dry cough with sputum, visible cyanosis (blue discolouration) on the fingers and lips. The most serious complications that often develop from asbestosis are lung or throat cancer . Both diseases are associated with a poor prognosis.

When should you go to the doctor?

Asbestosis is a fatal disease. This is triggered by inhaled asbestos particles. Asbestosis can only be recognized as an occupational disease by repeated visits to the doctor. The problem is that the disease only appears decades after exposure to asbestos and is then usually very advanced. The symptoms of asbestosis initially resemble those of chronic bronchitis. Therefore, those affected usually go to the doctor much too late.

The symptoms of an incipient pulmonary fibrosis, asbestos-related cancer or mesothelioma offer only insufficient treatment options due to the long latency period. People who knowingly come into contact with asbestos at work should protect themselves accordingly. Asbestos dust lung is the long-term consequence of inhaling particles containing asbestos.

As the second most common occupational disease in Germany, asbestos-related deaths occur again and again due to a lack of treatment options. The doctors consulted can only alleviate the suffering of their patients, but not heal them. A further increase in the number of cases is expected by 2020. Only then does the 1993 ban on asbestos come into effect.

It is important to realize that people with other risk factors – especially smokers – are much more likely to develop asbestosis. Lung tumors in particular are the result here. Lung specialists are the doctors who are usually called in when the first symptoms appear. They usually cannot do much for the patient.

Treatment & Therapy

Asbestosis is not curable. Once the scarring of the lung tissue has developed, it cannot yet be reversed. Therapy therefore aims to prevent or at least slow down the progression of the disease and to relieve the symptoms. Various methods are used for this.

Cortisone preparations are the right means to reduce inflammatory and allergic reactions in the organs . If the oxygen content of the blood falls below a certain limit, long-term therapy with oxygen is required. The patient receives oxygen for about 16 hours a day. The aim is to increase the level in the blood, strengthen the patient and enable them to cope better with everyday life.

Drugs that reduce the immune system ‘s own defense reactions , so-called immunosuppressants , can also slow down the course of the disease. Physiotherapy plays a particularly important role in treatment . Breathing exercises, relaxation techniques and an adapted, moderate sports program can alleviate the symptoms and improve the quality of life.

Nutritional advice can also significantly improve the general condition. Because smoking greatly exacerbates the disease, a smoking cessation program is essential. In severe cases, a lung transplant can be useful.

Outlook & Forecast

Asbestosis is one of the most dangerous black lung diseases affecting the respiratory tract. Inhaled asbestos fibers lodge permanently in the lungs. First, a pulmonary fibrosis develops, later usually a mesothelioma . Lung cancer and throat cancer are further consequences. All in all, this does not allow for a positive prognosis of the course.

The asbestos exposure is assessed based on inhaled fibers over a number of at least 25-30 “fiber years”. The problem here is that the disease often only occurs 30 years after occupational or otherwise acquired exposure to asbestos. Exposure to asbestos fibers is occupational and often not just a one-off. In addition, people can breathe in asbestos fibers without their knowledge.

The prognosis depends on how high the total exposure to asbestos was. In the case of a one-time or minor exposure to asbestos, the person concerned can remain symptom-free. In the case of repeated and severe exposure to asbestos without adequate protection, after 30 fiber years there is no hope of a cure, even with the best treatment. If other risk factors are added – above all long-term use of nicotine – the hope of longer-term survival chances is even lower.

The treatment of asbestosis can currently only alleviate the symptoms, but not the causes. With the onset of pulmonary fibrosis, asbestosis inevitably progresses. Breathing aids can be used for pulmonary fibrosis. Tumors can be operated on if they are discovered early enough.


Asbestosis is a recognized occupational disease. Occupations that are particularly at risk are those involved in the production and processing of asbestos. The disease can occur long after exposure to the harmful substance has ceased. Since asbestosis has not yet been cured, prevention is of great importance.

Every member of a risk group is therefore entitled to regular examinations in order to detect asbestosis in good time. The examinations are offered on behalf of the trade association and are free of charge for those affected.

↳ Further information: Home remedies for shortness of breath


Prevention and protection against inhaling the asbestos fibers would have been the better way when it came to asbestosis. But that is not always possible. Serious events such as a high-rise building fire or terrorist attacks such as those on the World Trade Center often suddenly release so many asbestos fibers that nobody can protect themselves from inhaling them.

However, the topic of aftercare is a difficult one, since the inhaled asbestos fibers lodge deep in the tissue of the respiratory tract. Once this has happened, they can no longer be removed from the lung and bronchial tissue. Several types of cancer are likely to develop as a result of exposure to asbestos. With repeated unprotected exposure, the risk of disease increases significantly.

Contact with the fibers often happened years ago. Follow-up care consists of lifelong monitoring of people who have had exposure to asbestos. How often the surveys and examinations have to be carried out varies from person to person. It depends, for example, on the amount of fibers inhaled and the frequency of suspected asbestos exposure.

Another branch of aftercare comes into effect after cancer surgery has become necessary. Asbestosis is often followed by asbestos-related cancer. The problem is that those affected by asbestos contact in their private lives often had no knowledge of the presence of the dangerous substance. The follow-up care therefore only refers to the consequences that have already occurred.

You can do that yourself

Asbestosis must first be diagnosed by a doctor. In addition to conventional medical treatment, the symptoms can be alleviated by some self-help measures.

First of all, the lifestyle should be adapted to the disease. This includes dietary measures and physical exercise, but also quitting smoking and building new habits. For example, the symptoms can be alleviated by relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation .

Those affected can find lung sports groups in large cities. There you can do sports under medical supervision and talk to other affected people. The exchange with other asbestosis patients helps those affected and their families to understand the disease. In this way, a certain level of acceptance can be built up in the long term. In some cases, extensive therapeutic measures can restore the quality of life that was used before.

Those affected should keep in touch with their general practitioner so that they can react quickly in the event of complications. Other contacts are internists and specialists in lung diseases. A first point of contact for those affected is the website of the Federal Association of Asbestosis Self-Help Groups eV There not only further therapy and counseling offers are made available. Information on compensation to which every asbestosis patient is entitled can also be found there.

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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.