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How Asbestos Works


Diseases and Symptoms Associated with Asbestos Exposure
An asbestosis fiber (with blue stain) can remain in a human lung indefinitely.
An asbestosis fiber (with blue stain) can remain in a human lung indefinitely.
Dr. Gladden Willis/Visuals Unlimited/Getty Images

So you've been exposed to asbestos; how likely are you to get sick? Diseases from asbestos exposure take a long time to appear. The typical range is 10 to 40 years after exposure, although it depends on the type of illness as well as other factors, such as whether the patient is a smoker (which increases the probability of the person developing respiratory ailments). The concentration, duration and frequency of asbestos exposure also has a hand in determining your chances of developing an illness. The long and thin fibers of amphibole asbestos are more likely to reach the lower airways and inflame the lungs and pleura, the membrane that lines the lungs [source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry].

The three most common illnesses associated with asbestos exposure are lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. All three share the common symptom of difficulty breathing.

Lung cancer causes the most deaths due to asbestos exposure, although asbestos exposure is not the only culprit [source: EPA]. Common symptoms include coughing, chest pains, hoarseness and anemia.

Asbestosis is the result of asbestos scratching and scarring lung tissue. It usually shows up the earliest of all the respiratory ailments -- typically 10 to 20 years following exposure [source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry]. A common symptom is a dry, cracking sound in the lungs while inhaling.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that affects the pleura. The majority of mesothelioma cases are due to asbestos exposure [source: Mesothelioma]. It may take years to develop, and may resemble pneumonia. Some common symptoms include chest pains and a persistent cough.

If you think you may have an asbestos-related respiratory illness, consult a pulmonary physician immediately.

For more information on asbestos, lung disease and related topics, see the links on the next page.