What Is Asbestosis?

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Asbestosis is a severe condition that affects the lungs when tiny fibers from asbestos materials are inhaled and become stuck in tissue there. When lodged in the lungs, asbestos causes scar tissue and thickening of connective tissue, making breathing difficult.

While this condition is not malignant, it may increase the risk of cancer caused by asbestos, such as mesothelioma, which affects membranes that line the lungs, stomach, heart, and other tissues; and cancers of the lungs, larynx, and ovaries.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned some asbestos products as early as 1973, these materials are still in some buildings. If such materials are disturbed, breathing them in can possibly lead to asbestosis over time.

This article will discuss the types of asbestosis, symptoms to watch for, possible causes, diagnostic steps, treatment options, and prognosis.

Man with gray hair and beard at home, having breathing difficulty

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Types of Asbestos

Asbestos is a group of heat-resistant silicate minerals made up of bundles of fine fibers. These materials are found in rocks and soil. Six different types of asbestos can cause asbestosis. They include:

  • Chrysotile asbestos: Dubbed white asbestos, this is the most common type found in buildings in the United States. These curly, flexible fibers known for their heat resistance can be found in fabrics, automotive parts such as brake linings or pads, clutches or gaskets, cement, asphalt, roofing supplies, and rubber. This cancer-causing material has been linked to most cases of either asbestosis or mesothelioma.
  • Actinolite asbestos: This involves easily inhaled needle-shaped dark fibers made of silicone, magnesium, calcium, and iron. There was a time when this was used in paints, sealants, cement, drywall, and insulation.
  • Amosite asbestos: Known as brown asbestos, these sharp needle-like fibers are considered extremely hazardous. The amosite asbestos is found in products ranging from cement to roofing materials. This also includes tiles and a variety of insulation products, fire protection, and gaskets.
  • Anthophyllite asbestos: Made of magnesium and iron, this form of asbestos can have hues yellowish to brown hues. While this type of asbestos was used in insulation or cement, it was rarely added to consumer goods.
  • Crocidolite asbestos: Called blue asbestos, this is very easy to breathe in, and some research shows that this causes more health problems and death than any other asbestos forms. Fortunately, because this type has less heat-resistant properties than other types, this form was rarely used in products. Occasionally, it was used in some insulation, tiles, and cement.
  • Tremolite asbestos: This form ranges in color from pale white to dark green and has been used in products from paint to roofing materials. It can even be woven into fabrics, like other types of asbestos. When inhaled, its sharp fibers can cause asbestosis.


If you inhale asbestos fibers, this can lead to lung scarring and symptoms such as the following:

  • A feeling of breathlessness
  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Weight loss
  • Thickened or clubbed fingertips


When sharp asbestos fibers become lodged in the lungs, they can cause scarring there. Because of this, the lungs can no longer work effectively. The longer the asbestos exposure, the greater the damage.

As a result, miners, construction laborers, and others who have worked around asbestos are at particular risk for asbestosis. Because these fibers can cling to clothing, the families of such workers are also at risk.

But asbestosis can take some time to develop (10 to 40 years). Regulations may protect current workers, but those who worked in industries before such laws were in place remain at risk.

Besides asbestosis, if you are exposed to asbestos, cancer may develop. For example, you may develop malignant mesothelioma or lung cancer. It can also cause disorders involving the tissue covering the lungs (pleural), such as pleural plaques, where the tissue thickens, or pleural effusion, where fluid collects around the lungs.

If you're a cigarette smoker, keep in mind that your chances of developing asbestos-related lung disease are increased.


To determine if you have asbestosis, a healthcare provider will first talk to you about whether you have had any potential asbestos exposure. Then you will need to undergo some of the following tests:

  • Chest X-rays look for any scarring or other abnormalities. If your lungs have a whitish appearance, this may show that you have asbestosis.
  • High-resolution computed tomography (HRCT) scans can show if the lung covering has any scarring. While this does not mean you have asbestosis, it indicates that you've been exposed to asbestos and can help narrow down the source of your lung issues.
  • Lung function tests are used to measure how well you are breathing. This can help measure your lung capacity and determine if they are functioning correctly.
  • Bronchoscopy can test lung fluid or tissue to help make a diagnosis. The test involves threading a maneuverable, pencil-sized fiber-optic scope into the lung, where a sample can be obtained.


While there is, unfortunately, no way to effectively treat asbestosis, there are ways to manage symptoms. Here are some measures that can help make breathing easier:

  • Supplemental oxygen: Having a machine available in your home to provide oxygen-rich air can make it easier to breathe and bump up oxygen levels.
  • Lung rehabilitation: Strengthening your lungs with exercises can help make breathing difficulties less pronounced.
  • Using an inhaler: For those with milder symptoms, relying on an inhaler to relax muscles and open up airways may be helpful.  
  • Removing lung fluid: Using mechanical drainage to remove fluid—what's known as chest percussion—a practitioner can use their cupped hand or an instrument to repeatedly tap on the lung area to loosen fluid with the aid of the vibration made.
  • Thinning lung fluid: Your healthcare provider may prescribe aerosol medication to thin lung fluids and make breathing easier.  
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking can aggravate asbestosis symptoms and increase the chances that you will ultimately develop lung cancer.
  • Protecting yourself against lung infections: By getting vaccines for influenza, pneumonia, and other respiratory infections, you can help to ensure that your lungs are not further strained and remain as healthy as possible.
  • Lung transplantation: In some cases, your healthcare provider may tell you that you are a candidate for a lung transplant.


How well you fare with asbestosis is not the same for everyone. It depends on the length of your exposure and how much and what type of asbestos you inhaled.

In some cases, this may progress very slowly, if at all, over time and may allow you to live for decades. But if you go on to develop a cancerous condition such as mesothelioma, the prognosis is poor.


No matter if you've had asbestosis for a while or are newly diagnosed, it can be difficult to handle alone. To help ease the stress, you may wish to join a support group such as the following:

Being around others who understand your challenges can help make you feel more empowered.


Asbestosis is a lung condition that affects people exposed to asbestos, a mineral once prized for its heat-resistant properties. There are six different types of asbestos, which have served slightly different functions and are now highly regulated due to the health risk they pose.

The asbestosis condition can arise years after exposure. With asbestosis, the lungs become scarred by the asbestos fibers and no longer work as efficiently as they should. There is currently no effective treatment for asbestosis, but it is possible to make breathing easier for those affected.

A Word From Verywell

If you have asbestosis, you may feel overwhelmed. But there are ways to manage symptoms and help you live with the condition. Work with a healthcare provider to find treatments that will enable you to breathe better and maintain a good quality of life.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Cancer Institute. Asbestos.

  2. Penn Medicine. Types of asbestos that can cause asbestos disease.

  3. NHS Inform. Asbestosis.

  4. National Cancer Institute. Asbestos exposure and cancer risk.

  5. Penn Medicine. What is asbestosis?

  6. University of California San Francisco Health. Asbestosis diagnosis.

  7. Mount Sinai. Asbestosis.

By Maxine Lipner
Maxine Lipner is a long-time health and medical writer with over 30 years of experience covering ophthalmology, oncology, and general health and wellness.