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What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a chronic long-term lung disease, characterised by inflammation and scarring or fibrosis of the tissue within the lungs. This scarring leads to the lungs shrinking and hardening, making it harder to breathe.

Asbestosis is a form of pneumoconiosis, which is a range of lung diseases caused by the inhalation of various dust particles. It’s different from pleural plaques and diffuse pleural thickening.
Close up of broken asbestos material


What causes asbestosis?

Asbestosis is caused by the inhalation of asbestos particles, usually intensely and over a long period. When asbestos particles enter the lungs, macrophages (defensive white blood cells in the lung) try to destroy those particles, but instead cause damage to the air sacs (alveoli) as the asbestos is too hard to break down. The alveoli then become progressively more scarred, and their ability to transfer oxygen from the air to the bloodstream, and remove carbon dioxide from the blood, becomes reduced. This reduced function leads to breathlessness and breathing difficulties.


What are the symptoms of asbestosis?

Symptoms can take many years to show after exposure to asbestos fibres. The main symptoms of asbestosis are:

  • Shortness of breath – you may get this occasionally after physical activity to start with, but it may later progress to be a constant symptom
  • Wheezing
  • A persistent cough
  • Pain in your chest
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • When asbestosis is more advanced, clubbed or swollen fingertips.

If you have any of these symptoms and know that you’ve been exposed in the past to asbestos, see your doctor immediately. Mention your asbestos exposure to your doctor.

Even if you don’t know whether you have been exposed to asbestos, you should still see your doctor if you have these symptoms.
Asbestos disease lung scan


How is asbestosis diagnosed?

To begin with, your doctor will listen to your chest with a stethoscope. Your lungs may make dry crackly sounds as you breathe in.

Next, you may have a chest x ray to see abnormalities in the lung structure. A CT scan produces a more detailed picture of the asbestosis damage in your lungs and the surrounding membranes, and can also see if plaques are developing.

Doctors may also take biopsies of the lung tissue, and carry out lung function tests to see how well your lungs are performing.


Can I get benefits payments for asbestosis under the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit?

Yes. Asbestosis is one prescribed diseases covered by the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) here (see disease number D1).  Find out more about IIDB and how to claim it here. You might also want to read our useful guide on how compensation can affect any benefits.


Is there a national compensation payment scheme open for asbestosis?

Yes. If you have asbestosis (also called pneumoconiosis) and you haven’t already made a compensation claim), you may be able to claim under the Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. You will usually make a claim for this after you have started receiving IIDB. Talk to your nearest Jobcentre Plus for more information on this.


How do I make a compensation claim for asbestosis?

If you choose to pursue a claim we at ASD can help.  You may first want to read our two helpful guides here:


What about time limits for asbestosis compensation claims?

Asbestosis symptoms typically take anywhere from 5 to 40 years to develop. It doesn’t matter that your asbestos exposure happened many years ago. However, if you are diagnosed with asbestosis, it’s important that you begin a compensation claim within three years of that diagnosis. If you start to have symptoms resembling those for asbestosis, and you know you have been exposed to asbestos previously, then it’s important to go to the doctor as soon as you can, and start your claim as soon as you receive a diagnosis of asbestosis. You can read more about time limits for occupational disease claims here.


Is there a cure for asbestosis

No, it’s a chronic condition. The damage to the lungs can’t be reversed. However, it is quite possible to live a long and healthy life with asbestosis: some cases may not progress or worsen, or do so very slowly. But some asbestosis cases may deteriorate, causing progressively worse breathing difficulties.

Having asbestosis also puts you at an increased risk of developing other, more serious, asbestos-related conditions such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.


How is asbestosis treated?

Stopping smoking
It’s very important to stop smoking as soon as you find out you have asbestos-related conditions. Smoking can add further risk to the existing possibility that you may develop lung cancer and it increases the symptoms of breathlessness. Stopping smoking can help prevent further damage to your lungs.


Lungs with asbestosis are weaker and more susceptible to infection. This means that flu vaccinations can be especially beneficial.


Oxygen therapy
The breathing and lung symptoms can be treated with oxygen therapy to increase the oxygen carried around your body in your blood.


If you have a lot of mucus in your lungs that you can’t clear properly, then you may receive respiratory physiotherapy to help remove this. This may be postural drainage or chest percussion.


You may also be given medication to thin the fluid in your chest, making it easier to cough. Other medication may include inhalers to open up your airways and make breathing easier. Occasionally doctors may prescribe small doses of morphine to alleviate the breathlessness symptoms of asbestosis.


In very rare cases, it may be possible to surgically remove some of the fibrous scarring, although this is uncommon and its effects are limited in success. Other surgical interventions can include thoracentesis, which is manual draining of the fluid that may gather in the lungs (pleural effusion).


Will I develop other asbestos-related conditions if I have asbestosis?

You may develop pleural plaques and diffuse pleural thickening if you already have asbestosis. You may also get pleural effusion – excess fluid in the lungs.


Will I develop mesothelioma or lung cancer if I have asbestosis?

If you have asbestosis, you have an increased chance of developing lung cancer, or more rarely, mesothelioma. However, that does not mean you will definitely develop either of these cancers.


How many people does asbestosis affect?

Statistics are complex, since asbestosis takes years to develop and show itself after past exposure. However, the Health and Safety Executive reports that, in 2013, there were 217 deaths where asbestosis was recorded as the underlying cause


What next?

If you’ve been exposed to asbestos, or have pleural plaques with symptoms, then give us a call on 0114 267 8780 or 0800 163 622, or email us and we’ll help you to get started.


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