What is the Difference Between Asbestosis & Mesothelioma?

Instructor: Justine Fritzel

Justine has been a Registered Nurse for 10 years and has a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree.

Asbestosis and mesothelioma are two diseases that affect the lungs. In this lesson, we will learn more about each of these conditions and what makes them different from each other.

Risks of Asbestos Exposure

You likely have some knowledge of asbestos. Maybe you don't know exactly what it is, but you probably know it's something you don't want to be exposed to. Asbestos is a very strong material that was used in a wide variety of building materials. It is water, fire, and chemical resistant so it was a commonly used material for different construction projects. Since we now know the serious risks of asbestos exposure, it is unlikely for someone to come into contact with it. It is highly regulated by the government but was frequently used prior to the 1970s.

asbestos risk

Jim and Jack are two brothers that worked together in a coal mine for decades. They retired in the early 1980s. They have heard the concerns of asbestos exposure since then but have not had concerns until now since both have been in good health.

Now, unfortunately, almost twenty years later, both Jim and Jack have begun to have health issues. They both have increased coughing and feel out of breath when they do too much activity. They haven't thought about it in years, but the fears of their prolonged asbestos exposure have now become a concern. They have both made appointments to see their doctors.

What is Asbestosis?

Jim's doctor asks him many questions, evaluates him, and sends him for tests. He finally is told that he has asbestosis. As Jim has feared, this is linked to his prolonged exposure to asbestos. The doctor explains that breathing in asbestos fibers causes them to get into the lining of the lungs. As the body tries to get rid of these fibers, it causes damage and scarring in the lung tissue. By the time a person starts having symptoms, the disease is very advanced. Eventually, the lungs are so scarred and damaged that they lose a lot of their function.

Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition that causes shortness of breath, persistent coughing, and a dry crackling sound during inhalation. The patient may also have chest tightness and chest pain and clubbing of the fingernails and toenails. Clubbing is when the nails are wider and rounder than normal and is a sign of chronically low oxygen levels. Loss of appetite and weight loss are often symptoms as well.

Dr. Smith further explains to Jim that he may develop pleural plaques, which are thick and hard areas that develop on the lining of the lungs. It is also possible to get fluid buildup around the lungs called pleural effusions. He explains that it is important to avoid exposure to cigarette smoke or other air pollutants. He should avoid people that are sick and should get the influenza and pneumonia vaccines to try to help prevent illness that could exacerbate his lung condition.

What is Mesothelioma?

Jack's appointment with his doctor doesn't go any better. He is also told that his health condition is caused by exposure to asbestos. Dr. Jones tells him that he has mesothelioma. Jack asks if mesothelioma is any different from the asbestosis that his brother has.

Dr. Jones explains that it is different. Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer that is deadly. It is not clearly understood why some people develop mesothelioma after asbestos exposure and others do not. There may be a genetic link that causes some people to be more susceptible to developing cancer. After the asbestos is inhaled into the lungs, the cells start dividing uncontrollably and start crowding out healthy cells. Again, most people aren't diagnosed for decades after exposure when they start having symptoms. At the point of diagnosis, the disease is very far advanced.

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