- Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos dust.
- Asbestos is a material that was commonly used in construction during the 1900s, until its use was banned in 2003.
- The main symptom of asbestosis is shortness of breath that is worse with physical activity.
- If your doctor thinks you may have asbestosis, they will assess your symptoms, ask about your past asbestos exposure and carry out lung function tests, as part of making a diagnosis.
- Asbestosis has no cure, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of complications.
What is asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos dust. Inhaling asbestos dust can cause scarring in the lungs and in the pleural membrane (lining that surrounds the lungs).
What causes asbestosis?
Asbestosis is caused by exposure to asbestos dust.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of minerals, and is made up of very fine crystals. Due to their size, these crystals can be inhaled and get in to the smallest of airways. They irritate lung tissue and cannot be cleared by the lungs, causing inflammation, scarring and serious diseases, which can take many years or even decades to develop.
Asbestos was widely used in buildings as insulation and fireproofing, and in textiles. Around 2 out of every 3 houses built between the 1940s and 1980s contain asbestos. Concerns about its toxicity were raised in Australia in the 1970s. Asbestos use was phased out in the 1980s and it was banned in 2003. In Australia, homes built after 1990 are unlikely to contain asbestos.
Who is at risk of asbestosis?
Most people who develop asbestos-related diseases have worked in jobs where they often breathed in large amounts of asbestos fibres.
You may also be at risk of developing an asbestos-related illness if you:
- lived with someone who worked with asbestos
- played on piles of discarded asbestos as a child
- lived in an area where asbestos was mined
What are the symptoms of asbestosis?
The most common symptom of asbestosis is difficulty breathing, especially with physical activity. The level of breathlessness will likely get worse over time as the disease progresses.
- shortness of breath
- persistent cough
- rapid weight loss
- chest pain or abdominal pain
- coughing up blood
Symptoms usually appear 15 to 20 years after exposure to asbestos dust.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
When should I see my doctor?
If you know that you were exposed to asbestos in the past, or you think you might have been exposed, see your doctor to be checked for asbestos-related diseases. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of asbestosis listed above, mention these to your doctor.
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
How is asbestosis diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, your medical history and any known past exposure to asbestos. They will also physically examine you, including listening to your lungs.
If your doctor suspects that you have asbestosis, you may be referred for lung-function tests. These check how well your lungs work and can help identify the cause of any problems.
How is asbestosis treated?
There is no cure for asbestosis. It cannot be reversed and is likely to get worse over time. However, there are things that you can do to reduce your risk of complications from asbestosis:
- If you smoke, you should quit. People with asbestosis who smoke have a high risk of developing lung cancer.
- Ask your doctor about vaccinations against pneumonia and the flu. This is important because you have a high risk of complications from these conditions.
Can asbestosis be prevented?
You can prevent asbestosis by avoiding exposure to asbestos. If you are likely to be exposed to asbestos, you should wear the right personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect your lungs.
Visit Lung Foundation Australia's website to learn what you can do to protect your lungs if you’re working with, or are exposed to, asbestos dust.
Read this Department of Health and Aged Care guide for more information about identifying and safely removing asbestos.
Complications of asbestosis
Asbestosis increases your risk of suffering from other lung problems including:
Asbestosis can also increase your risk of some types of heart failure.
What other illnesses are caused by exposure to asbestos?
Other illnesses caused by exposure to asbestos include mesothelioma, pleural disease, lung cancer and other cancers.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the covering of the lung (the pleura). The disease can take 20 to 40 years to develop, but once it begins it spreads rapidly. It is usually fatal within a year.
Lung cancer and other cancers
Lung cancer can develop in people who have breathed in asbestos fibres. This is more common in people who smoke or who have smoked in the past.
Asbestos exposure also increases the risk of cancer of the larynx (the voice box), ovaries and testes.
Pleural disease is inflammation of the lining of the lung (the pleura). The disease causes stiffening of the lung and difficulty breathing.
What should I do if I am worried about asbestos?
If you are worried about asbestos in your home or in general, you can discuss your concern with the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.
Fibrocement cladding can be tested to see if it contains asbestos. Contact the National Association of Testing Authorities.
Resources and support
If you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos, you can register your information on the Australian Government’s National Asbestos Exposure Register (NAER).
If you have symptoms and have been exposed to asbestos at work or outside of work, the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia offers a health check. To make an appointment call 1800 646 690.
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Last reviewed: January 2023