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Asbestos Exposure: Symptoms and Diseases

Asbestos is a material that companies once used in construction and consumer products. When people ingest or inhale asbestos fibers and dust, they can develop several serious illnesses. These illnesses range from minor respiratory problems to cancer.

Many patients work or live around asbestos for decades before they are symptomatic. This is one reason why new cases of asbestos-related diseases continue to surface.

This article provides an overview of illnesses attributable to asbestos exposure. It also describes the symptoms of various asbestos-related diseases. To learn more about asbestos and other dangerous minerals, visit FindLaw's Toxic Chemicals and Materials page.

Why Is Asbestos Exposure So Dangerous?

Asbestos is a mineral that contractors used in construction, manufacturing, and industry up until the late 1970s. Today, only a handful of consumer products contain asbestos. Over time, asbestos fibers and dust escape into the air. People either breathe in the fibers and dust or ingest them, causing damage to the lining of their internal organs.

Many people who develop lung disease and other adverse health effects encounter asbestos at work. For example, people who work in shipbuilding and construction are at a higher risk of developing asbestosis, cancer, and mesothelioma.

Other people suffering from asbestos-related lung disease come into contact with asbestos in different ways. For example, you may have harmful products in your home that contain asbestos, or you may live in an older home with building materials containing asbestos.

One of the reasons asbestos exposure is so dangerous is that you don't know when it's happening. You can't see asbestos. It doesn't have a familiar smell. By the time you realize you're sick, you may already have a terminal illness.

Asbestos-related diseases can take years or decades for people to develop symptoms. This makes it even harder to prove fault. Your asbestos attorney must demonstrate that a third party is responsible for your illness. That can be hard to do when you have no idea exactly what caused your disease.

What Does Asbestos Do to the Human Body?

Asbestos causes significant health problems when people inhale airborne fibers. These fibers can settle in the lungs and neighboring tissue before spreading to other parts of 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. Asbestos exposure and cancer risk can happen over a long period. By the time your healthcare provider runs the necessary tests to check for asbestos-related illnesses, it may be too late to make a full recovery.

Some of the tests your doctors will conduct include:

  • Chest x-ray
  • CT scan
  • Lung function tests

Depending on the results of these tests, you may need to initiate treatment immediately.

What Types of Workers Are at Highest Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

People working in environments with asbestos are at a high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses. This is especially true for people who spend their entire careers working around asbestos.

Some of the occupations that put workers at risk of developing symptoms of asbestosis, lung cancer, pulmonary disease, and pleural effusion include the following:

  • Construction workers
  • Manufacturing workers
  • Textile workers
  • Navy veterans
  • Auto mechanics
  • Dental Manufacturing
  • Roofing
  • Work with ceiling and floor tiles
  • Demolition work
  • Asbestos mining

People in these fields make up a significant percentage of patients diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses. People who live in the same household as asbestos workers are also at risk due to secondary exposure.

Example of Asbestos Exposure Illness

Imagine your father was in the Navy and worked in one of their Eastern shipyards for forty years. When you were a teenager, you remember your dad coming home every night with a persistent cough and trouble breathing. He chalked it up to a cold and allergies.

Your father didn't know it, but while working at the boatyard he came into contact with various types of asbestos. He didn't visit a doctor about his symptoms because everyone else at work had them, too.

When your dad turned 50, he visited his doctor for a physical. When he complained that he had a loss of appetite and a dry cough constantly, his doctor decided to run a litany of diagnostic tests. The tests showed pleural plaques and pleural thickening.

A week after your father saw the doctor, he got a phone call. The doctor told him that he had lung damage and they needed to do a lung biopsy to check for cancer. Sadly, the doctor's suspicions were right. Your dad was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and passed away five months later.

This is a familiar story for many Americans who worked or lived near asbestos.

Lung Cancer from Asbestos Exposure

Lung cancer is the most common asbestos-related illness. More patients develop lung cancer than any other asbestos-related illness. Lung cancer is also 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

Risk Factors for Lung Cancer

There are many risk factors for lung cancer. Chief among these is smoking, the leading cause of lung cancer. Patients who work or live near asbestos and smoke are far more likely to develop lung cancer than patients who don't smoke.

Other lung cancer risk factors include the following:

  • Second-hand smoke
  • Exposure to certain gases and chemicals
  • Family history of lung cancer
  • Working with carcinogens

If you already have an increased risk of lung cancer, you need to be vigilant about seeing your doctor. Have the necessary tests run every two or three years to ensure you aren't sick. As illnesses like lung cancer progresses, it becomes harder to treat.

Lung Cancer Treatment Options

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 several drugs available that can prevent the growth or spread of cancer.

Even with treatment, however, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 23%. Studies show that the death rate for lung cancer has decreased by 5% each year between 2014 and 2020. The hope is that this number will continue to go down.


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% of mesothelioma patients survive for more than five years after being diagnosed. The average survival time following diagnosis is one year. However, 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:

  • Pleural Mesothelioma (Lungs)
  • Peritoneal Mesothelioma (Abdomen)
  • Pericardial Mesothelioma (Heart)
  • Mesothelioma of the Tunic Vaginalis (Testicular)

While each form of mesothelioma can have different symptoms, common asbestos exposure symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Persistent cough
  • Lumps in the affected area
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

Other Forms of Cancer

Asbestos exposure causes other types of cancer, in addition to lung cancer and mesothelioma. However, these types of cancer are much less common. For example, some patients develop ovarian or laryngeal cancer.


When most people learn that someone they love is sick from asbestos exposure, they automatically assume they have asbestosis. Asbestosis is a form of pneumoconiosis. It involves the scarring of lung tissue, often causing shortness of breath and other lung-related problems.

Patients with asbestosis may also experience the following:

  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Weight loss

They may also experience the symptoms described above for lung cancer and mesothelioma.

How Do I Know Asbestos Caused My Illness?

It can be challenging to prove that asbestos caused your illness. Since it can take so long to develop asbestos-related diseases, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact cause. That is why you should visit a specialist.

Doctors specializing in these diseases know what tests to run to diagnose your illness. They are also familiar with the latest treatment options and can also help your personal injury lawyer prove that asbestos exposure caused your disease.

If you became sick after working with or living near asbestos, contact a product liability attorney immediately.

Do You Have an Asbestos Illness? Find Out About Your Legal Options

Lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestos are complex diseases to treat. Patients are usually diagnosed in the later stages of their condition and start treatment in the late stages of the disease. Unfortunately, you don't have a lot of time to pursue your claim.

If you have a legal claim, contact an asbestos and mesothelioma lawyer near you. They can review your case. They can handle the legal side while you focus on getting the necessary treatment.

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