Every year, thousands of people in the United Kingdom are diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses. These illnesses are normally caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres, although some people do fall ill after very limited exposure. Most illnesses are caused when asbestos
fibres become lodged in soft tissue and create scarring in the respiratory system. This leads to thickening of the tissue which causes pain and difficulty breathing. Treatments for asbestos-related diseases are limited.
Asbestosis does not develop immediately after exposure. Most people will not begin to display symptoms until years after they have first inhaled asbestos fibres.
Asbestosis is characterised by shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, fatigue and chest pains. In some cases, patients may experience swelling in the extremities (fingertips and toes) due to reduced oxygen flow to these areas. Some people who have experienced fibre irritation and scarring in the windpipe will also have trouble swallowing.
As the disease develops it is likely to lead to high blood pressure and heart disease as the heart is forced to work harder to pump the blood around the body in order to get sufficient amounts of oxygen to vital organs. In order to diagnose asbestosis, doctors will normally require patients to undergo a chest x-ray and lung function test. A lung biopsy may also help to confirm the presence of microscopic asbestos fibres.
Because asbestosis develops due to years of damage to the lungs, there is no cure for the condition. Treatments are designed to prolong life and reduce the suffering of the patient. Morphine may be given to patients to reduce their pain levels.
As a primary form of treatment, patients will be asked to make lifestyle changes. Quitting smoking can help to reduce breathlessness and increase oxygen uptake into the blood. Patients can obtain support from their GP to help them to quit smoking. This support includes access to support groups and nicotine withdrawal aids.
Because asbestosis makes patients more vulnerable to infections, they may also be given booster vaccinations to reduce risks. Asbestosis patients are recommended to visit their GP every autumn to get a flu vaccination before the winter period. For patients who are experiencing severe breathlessness, oxygen therapy may be recommended.
An oxygen concentrator is used to purify the air to give it a higher oxygen concentration. Patients are then able to breathe concentrated oxygen through a face mask or nose cannula. Although small ambulatory oxygen tanks may allow patients to spend short amounts of time out of the house, most patients will be confined to their oxygen room for long periods of time. High concentrations of oxygen are highly flammable, so patients must not smoke when they are near their oxygen concentrator machine.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that affects the soft tissue lining of internal organs. Although it is most common in the lining of the lungs, it can also present itself in the lining of the stomach, heart or testicles. Mesothelioma may spread to different areas as the cancer progresses.
Mesothelioma often develops as a result of asbestosis. Many of the symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to the symptoms of asbestosis, so asbestosis patients may require regular check-ups to make sure that their illness has not developed into cancer. Symptoms of mesothelioma include; shortness of breath after minimal exertion, chest pains, high temperature, sweating after minimal exertion, a persistent cough, loss of appetite, unexplained loss of weight, and swelling in the extremities (clubbed fingertips).
Swelling develops because the extremities are not receiving enough oxygen in the blood. If the patient is suffering mesothelioma of the tummy lining, the patient may also experience sickness and diarrhoea, frequent nausea, swelling of the stomach and pain in the tummy area.
It is very difficult to treat mesothelioma in patients, and most patients who are diagnosed have a poor outlook. Around 50% of those who are diagnosed will survive for longer than a year, but only around one in ten patients will live for longer than 5 years. Treatment is largely palliative or supportive. Patients may be given chemotherapy to try to reduce the size of the cancer and to prevent is from spreading. Alternatively, radiotherapy may be considered to try to kill the cancer cells and control new cancerous cell growth. Both of these treatments can be tough and there are a lot of negative side effects.