While our Useful Guide on What Causes Asbestosis explains the ins and outs of this serious lung disease (which results from breathing in asbestos fibres), the following guide will explain the process for diagnosing asbestosis.
Asbestosis is classified as an aggressive pulmonary disease which generally only shows overt symptoms, namely shortness of breath and a persistent cough, approximately 15 to 30 years after exposure. By this time however the damage has been done, which is why it is called a “silent killer”. Unfortunately, there is no known cure for asbestosis and if it has progressed to an advanced stage it is terminal.
Diagnosis of asbestosis can be challenging because the symptoms resemble less serious conditions like asthma and pneumonia. Additionally, scarring of the lungs (one of the symptoms) can be caused by other illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis.
A complete medical evaluation will be needed to confirm asbestosis, including a full review of your work history, specific periods when you were exposed to asbestos, and whether you were given safety equipment during exposure such as a face mask.
The Process of Asbestosis Diagnosis
If you work or have worked in a trade at high risk of asbestos exposure, or have a persistent cough and worsening shortness of breath, you should head to your GP without fail. To start with, your GP will listen to your lungs using a stethoscope – they will make a crackling noise when you breathe if they have been damaged by asbestos exposure.
Your GP will also ask about your work history. If they suspect asbestosis or another serious lung disease, they will refer you to a specialist i.e. an oncologist or pulmonologist.
By performing a variety of tests, the specialist will be able to rule out other illnesses, including other asbestos related conditions such as mesothelioma or lung cancer.
The most common tests that are confirmed to diagnose asbestosis are:
• Chest X-ray – this will detect abnormalities in the structure of your lungs that could be caused by asbestosis.
• CT (Computerised Tomography) Scan – the device is able to produce detailed images of the lungs and the membrane covering them (known as pleura), which helps diagnose early stage asbestosis better than an X-ray.
• Pulmonary Function Test – this measures the air capacity of the lungs (how much air they can hold) and determines how well air flows in and out. The most common way to do this is by blowing into an instrument called a spirometer. One of the major signs of asbestosis is a reduction in the air that can be forced from the lungs after a full inhalation.
• Bronchoscopy – this procedure is performed to obtain fluid or tissue samples from the lung area by inserting a thin fibre-optic scope. A bronchoscopy is generally only performed as a last resort when the other methods are failing to confirm suspected asbestosis.
In addition to structural changes to the lungs which indicate asbestosis, the extent of the condition is assessed according to damage of the bronchiole – these are the passageways through which air passes through the nose or mouth to the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs.
To confirm a diagnosis of asbestosis, it will also be crucial to determine the patient’s asbestos exposure history, such as the type of asbestos breathed in, the duration, the intensity and the circumstances. Latency (the amount of time between excessive exposure to asbestos and the time a person develops the disease) also plays an integral part of the diagnostic process. For example, if lung scarring is detected within only a few years since you were exposed to asbestos, it is likely caused by a different disease because asbestosis development within five years in very rare.
If you currently work in a trade that is at high risk of asbestos exposure i.e. dealing with buildings or materials that were constructed before the year 2000, it’s highly advisable to have annual medical check-ups, since early detection of asbestosis allows it to be alleviated and further exposure prevented. Should you have previously worked with asbestos, even thirty years ago, and are experiencing even a mild persistent cough, it is important to visit your GP.