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Mesothelioma Symptoms and Treatment

Updated on December 31, 2016

Asbestosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of fine asbestos particles over a prolonged period of time. It is similar to the disease caused by coal dust in miners (pneumoconiosis), silica dust from rock mining and stone cutting (silicosis) and talcum powder in milling and the rubber industry (talcosis)

The asbestos particles are long, thin filaments, that easily become trapped in the small air tubes (bronchioles) of the lung. The lower part of the lungs is most commonly affected, and a characteristic appearance develops on X-rays of the chest. The disease occurs almost exclusively in asbestos factory workers, processors and miners who inhale free-floating particles of asbestos in the workplace.

The asbestos particles are harmless when combined with cement and other materials in pipes and sheeting, and can only cause harm if inhaled during sawing or cutting of these pipes or sheets. Swallowing small amounts of asbestos or touching asbestos in any form is harmless. Asbestos dust has been used as an insulating material in the past, and may be harmful if the roof or wall cavity in which it is situated is opened, and the dust therein inhaled. This form of asbestos is being steadily removed from most buildings in Western countries.

Sufferers from asbestosis develop shortness of breath, cough, and, in advanced cases, blue lips and clubbed finger tips. The lungs become progressively more damaged with time and further exposure, to the point where the patient may have no exercise tolerance and suffer symptoms similar to severe asthma or emphysema. The disease may progress for long after asbestos exposure has ceased. Smoking will obviously aggravate the condition.


The most serious complication of asbestosis is the development of a virulent form of lung cancer known as mesothelioma and caused by exposure to asbestos. Up to 7% of patients with asbestosis will develop mesothelioma. This type of cancer occurs half the time in non-asbestosis sufferers, but it is more common in smokers who have been exposed to asbestos. The average age of onset of this cancer is 60, and the latent period between exposure to asbestos and development of mesothelioma can be up to 40 years.

Lining the inside of the chest cavity and abdomen are smooth, shiny membranes. In the chest this membrane is called the pleura, and in the abdomen it is called the peritoneum. A mesothelioma is a tumor of either the pleura (80% of cases) or the peritoneum.

Mesotheliomas can be malignant cancers (75% of cases), or localized benign (non-cancerous) growths. The vast majority of cases occur in men, and there is a high incidence of the malignant form among workers exposed to asbestos dust. It is a disease of men who may not have worked with asbestos for 20 years or more. The symptoms include shortness of breath, weight loss and chest pain.

Mesothelioma has a very insidious onset, with symptoms little different to asbestosis itself, and X-ray changes may not be apparent until the disease is quite advanced. CT scans are more useful in making the diagnosis in suspicious cases. A biopsy of the cancerous area is the only way to make a definite diagnosis.

The malignant form of mesothelioma spreads very rapidly around the lung and abdomen, and patients become progressively more breathless and suffer considerably from pain, as every movement of the chest with breathing irritates the cancer. A number of treatments with potent drugs and irradiation have been tried, but with minimal success, and the majority of victims die within eight months of diagnosis. The cancer is extremely virulent and spreads rapidly, survival beyond two years is rare. Treatment with surgery, drugs and radiation has been tried, but with virtually no success.

The benign form of the disease is readily treated by surgically removing the affected area of pleura or peritoneum.

Please Note:

  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.


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