Asbestos is a heat- and fire-resistant insulating material that has been used in many industries over the course of almost 200 years. But the material can cause a number of lung diseases when the fibers are breathed in and become embedded in the tissue.1
Asbestosis vs. mesothelioma
These two asbestos-related lung diseases are similar in cause, symptoms and diagnosis, but differ in many important ways, specifically:
- The affected tissue
What is asbestosis?
Asbestosis2,3,4 is caused by the asbestos fibers scarring the lungs, called fibrosis. This condition makes it difficult to breathe, causing chest pain and fluid accumulation in the lungs. The condition cannot be cured, but stopping asbestos exposure once the fibrosis starts can prevent it from worsening. The disease is diagnosed by a physical exam, chest X-ray or CT scan, biopsy and lung function test. How well someone lives with the condition depends on the extent of the damage, how long they were exposed to asbestos and how well the symptoms are managed.
What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen caused by asbestos fibers becoming lodged in the tissue after breathing them in or swallowing them.5 Tumors then form from the damaged cells in the chest or abdomen.6 The symptoms of mesothelioma cancer depend on its location. In the chest, the symptoms include chest pain and difficulty breathing, similar to asbestosis. When the cancer occurs in the abdomen it can cause fluid accumulation and swelling.
Mesothelioma cancer is diagnosed similarly to asbestosis, by a physical exam, chest X-ray or CT scan, and biopsy, in addition to other location-specific tests to confirm cancer.7 Mesothelioma is treated by surgically removing the tumor and treating the patient with chemotherapy and radiation.8 Treated in its earliest stages, the patient has a chance of recovering fully, but the overall survival rate drops for later stages.9
Avoiding asbestos exposure
Most cases of mesothelioma are due to exposure that occurred decades before the cancer appears, whereas asbestosis tends to not worsen once exposure is stopped. New uses of asbestos were banned in the 1980s, but the material is still present in some older buildings and products. Even workers at ground zero in New York City have experienced lung problems likely associated, at least to some extent, to the asbestos used in the World Trade Center.10 Some people who live near asbestos and asbestos-like materials in their environment may also be exposed without realizing it.11
If you or a loved one has a history of asbestos exposure and may have an exposure-related lung disease, you should seek medical advice. Only a doctor can determine what you have and your treatment options.