Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals that are resistant to heat and corrosion. It is one of the most important occupational carcinogens and causes about half of the deaths from occupational cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
Thousands of lives are lost to asbestos-related disease every year. Asbestosis and mesothelioma are two diseases brought on by asbestos exposure, but they are not the same.
Both are caused by inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers. The principal difference is asbestosis is not cancerous and usually occurs in the lungs and respiratory tract. Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer. It most typically presents in the abdomen and lungs.
What Is Asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory respiratory disease caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers in the air. When inhaled, these fibers cause lung scarring and stiffness, which make it difficult to take full, deep breaths. This disease usually occurs in people who have had a very high exposure to asbestos over a long time. Severe asbestosis can lead to respiratory failure over 10 – 20 years. Late-stage symptoms include increasing shortness of breath, an ongoing cough, and chest pain. The typical latency period is approximately 15-30 years.
What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer almost always caused by asbestos exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It occurs in the membrane that covers the lungs and chest cavity (pleura), the membrane covering the abdominal cavity (peritoneum), or membranes surrounding other internal organs. The disease has a latency period of 30-40 years.
Late-stage symptoms can include chest pain, ongoing shortness of breath, and unexplained weight loss. Coughing up blood is also not uncommon.
Key Differences Between Asbestosis and Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer, and asbestosis is a form of pulmonary fibrosis. The two diseases share many symptoms, including
- Chest pain
- Clubbed or swollen fingertips (advanced stages)
- Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- Loss of appetite
- Persistent cough
- Shortness of breath
Mesothelioma, because it can also present in the abdominal area, can also include symptoms such as:
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Feeling or being sick
- Stomach pain or swelling
- Swelling in face or arms
- Unexplained weight loss
Approximately 50 percent of mesothelioma sufferers will live at least a year after diagnosis. About 10 percent live at least five years after diagnosis.
Those with asbestosis may get sick more often and may need to adjust their lifestyles to include oxygen therapy, attending pulmonary rehabilitation, and learning to go about life in a way that keeps them from becoming short of breath.
How are Asbestosis and Mesothelioma Diagnosed?
To diagnose either condition requires thorough medical and occupational screening. Asbestosis, in particular, may not be revealed through a review of symptoms and simple imaging unless there is a known history or risk of toxic exposure.
There are three basic steps in diagnosing these diseases:
Step 1: For both asbestosis and mesothelioma, speak with a primary care physician about respiratory changes or other health issues.
Step 2: Have an X-ray or CT scan to see if there are any visual abnormalities in the lungs. If a doctor suspects mesothelioma, additional tests, such as a PET scan or MRI, may be ordered.
Step 3: Have a biopsy to differentiate between asbestosis and mesothelioma. There are several types of biopsies, including:
- Bronchoscopy. A sample is retrieved by a doctor inserting a small camera attached to a thin, flexible tube through the nose or mouth into the breathing passages.
- Needle biopsy. Using guided imagery, a doctor uses a needle to remove liquid containing a sample of cells for pathological identification.
- Thoracoscopic surgery. An invasive approach that allows surgeons to remove a core sample of tissue and offers the best method of cell identification.
How Does Asbestosis and Mesothelioma Treatment Differ?
Both diseases share some pain-relief treatments, such as draining fluid from the chest. This process, called thoracentesis, is minimally invasive and increases a patient’s ability to breathe. Overall, however, treatments are distinctly different.
Asbestosis treatments are much less aggressive and focus on relieving asbestosis symptoms and slowing down the progression of the disease.
Treatment of asbestosis includes:
- Oxygen therapy
- Pulmonary rehabilitation
- Quitting smoking as soon as possible
- Lung transplant (in the most severe cases)
Asbestosis can be managed by:
- Maintaining a well-balanced, limited salt diet
- Drinking lots of water
- Getting adequate sleep and taking naps when needed
- Staying active, but not overdoing
- Prevent infections by washing hands often
- Getting flu and pneumonia shots (according to doctor recommendations)
- Staying inside when air pollution is severe and pollen counts are high
- Avoiding second-hand smoke, traffic fumes, smog, aerosol sprays, vapors from product such as cleaning agents, kerosene, and paint
- Covering mouth and nose to avoid breathing in cold air
With mesothelioma, if the cancer is caught early enough, the sufferer can have all or part of the disease surgically removed. Chemotherapy can also help reduce symptoms by using chemicals to help shrink and slow the growth of the disease.
Other options to treat mesothelioma are:
- Targeted or drug therapy
- Immunotherapy to help immune system attack cancerous cells
To manage mesothelioma, fluid can be removed from the pleural space with a needle, installing a drain, or sometimes surgery. Pain management includes working with a physiotherapist to learn ways to prevent pain, using a medicinal patch, taking oral or intravenous medications. The key component in managing mesothelioma is palliative care to control symptoms.
In severe cases, asbestosis patients may be lung transplant candidates. This is not a treatment option for mesothelioma cases. Mesothelioma surgery involves removing – and not replacing – the affected lung or removing the pleura (membrane between the lungs and chest wall).
How We Help Victims of Mesothelioma
Seek justice with the help of our experienced mesothelioma attorneys. Our mesothelioma law firm has represented Louisiana workers affected by asbestos exposure for over 20 years, aggressively fighting corporate giants responsible for dangerous products. If you or a loved one were exposed to asbestos or suffer from a disease caused by asbestos like mesothelioma, we can help.