What is asbestos?
Asbestos is the name of a group of mineral elements that are thin and shaped like long fibers. For many years, asbestos was used in insulation, in car brakes, in ships, in refractory materials and many other items. After 1970s its use declined dramatically. This is due to the fact that science has shown that exposure to asbestos can cause serious health problems.
How can someone be exposed to asbestos?
Usually the exposure to asbestos is related to one’s occupation. Asbestos is found in several construction materials. So, people who work using these materials may be exposed to asbestos. These can be plumbers, electricians, people who install insulation and several others. Moreover, one can indirectly be exposed to asbestos through contact with the clothes of someone else who is directly exposed as those of previous occupations. For example, this can happen when an employee brings his clothes home for washing. Moreover, one can be exposed to low levels of asbestos found in nature.
What health problems can occur due to exposure to asbestos?
Asbestos fibers are very small. When they float in the air, one could inhale the fibers and as a result, they can get into the lungs, where they are finally trapped. This may cause the following medical conditions:
- Asbestosis – essentially scarring of lungs – fibrosis, which eventually causes shortness of breath.
- Cancer – This includes lung cancer and mesothelioma which is a rare form of cancer involving the tissue around the lungs.
- Problems of the pleura. The pleura is the tissue that surrounds the lungs. So over the years pleural plaques can be formed or fluid can accumulate around the lungs.
It should be noted that to arrive at a problem, one has to be exposed for long time period to asbestos or be exposed to high concentrations of asbestos in a shorter time. Moreover, a large percentage of people exposed to asbestos will not ever present disease, especially if they are non-smokers.
What are the symptoms that may occur after exposure to asbestos?
Many people are completely asymptomatic until 15-30 years after exposure. The first symptom is usually shortness of breath – difficulty of breathing. Initially, this appears only after intense physical activity, but over time, can be shown even when someone is sitting or lying down. Other symptoms can include chest pain, cough, and heamoptysis.
Should you visit your doctor?
Yes. If you have difficulty breathing, you should be evaluated by your doctor immediately. It is very important for your doctor to record your detailed work history, because as mentioned earlier, usually the exposure to asbestos has to do with the profession of the individual. If additional dyspnea or chest pain or nausea or expectoration of blood exist, it is necessary to immediate evacuate to hospital. The presence of these conditions suggests that the situation is serious.
Do you need to have any tests?
Yes. Initially your doctor will ask you several questions, and especially about your work history. It is very important that your doctor knows all the jobs which you had, and the time period of each one. This can indirectly estimate the degree of exposure to asbestos. In addition, the doctor will recommend you some tests to investigate whether it has affected your health. These may include:
- Chest X-ray – may reveal the existence of pleural effusion, or even if there are pleural plaques or calcifications around the lungs. It can also show if there are scars – lungs fibrosis.
- Computed tomography – depicts in more detail the inside of human body.
- Breath tests – this is done for measuring and recording lung function. The patient inhales deeply and then blows into a tube as quickly and strongly as possible. The tube is connected to a machine and computer, so the flows and volumes of lungs are calculated.
- Puncture of pleural effusion – If there is fluid around your lungs, your doctor may perform a thoracentisis through a small needle to clarify if indeed the cause of the effusion is exposure to asbestos, or some other coexisting disease in lungs.
How to treat the diseases caused by asbestos exposure?
Treatment depends on what problems have derived from asbestos exposure. More specifically:
- In asbestosis patients are likely to need oxygen and other palliative treatment.
- In lung cancer and mesothelioma may need to have surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
- In diseases of the pleura and especially when there is a large pleural effusion, the doctor may place a thin tube to drain the fluid. He can also suggest several anti-inflammatory drugs.
Your doctor will help you in choosing the most appropriate treatment taking into account the dominant problem that you have because of exposure to asbestos.
Is thers something extra that one can do to help himself?
Yes. If someone smokes, it is important to stop smoking immediately. The problems caused by asbestos exposure get worse if someone is also smoking. Stopping smoking slows its synergistic action thus reduces the risk of developing cancer. It is also important to stop the exposure of any person to asbestos, or wearing special masks and special clothes at work or even changing profession. Moreover, one should be vaccinated against flu annually and against pneumococcus at least once in lifetime. It is important to prevent these infections because the respiratory system is already vulnerable after exposure to asbestos.