Detecting Asbestos Disease

Symptoms of Asbestos Related Disease May Not Become Apparent for Decades After Exposure

Individuals who have been exposed (or suspect they have been exposed) to asbestos fibers on the job, through the environment, or at home via a family contact should inform their doctor of their exposure history, whether or not they experience any symptoms. The symptoms of asbestos related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after exposure. It is particularly important to check with a doctor if any of the following symptoms develop:

  • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness.
  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time.
  • Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs.
  • Pain or tightening in the chest.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Swelling of the neck or face.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Fatigue or anemia.

A thorough physical examination, including a chest x-ray and lung function tests, may be recommended. The chest x-ray is currently the most common tool used to detect asbestos related diseases. However, it is important to note that chest x-rays cannot detect asbestos fibers in the lungs, but they can help identify any early signs of lung disease resulting from asbestos exposure

Studies have shown that computed tomography (CT) (a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body taken from different angles; the pictures are created by a computer linked to an x-ray machine) may be more effective than conventional chest x-rays at detecting asbestos related lung abnormalities in individuals who have been exposed to asbestos.

A lung biopsy, which detects microscopic asbestos fibers in pieces of lung tissue removed by surgery, is the most reliable test to confirm the presence of asbestos related abnormalities. A bronchoscopy is a less invasive test than a biopsy and detects asbestos fibers in material that is rinsed out of the lungs. It is important to note that these tests cannot determine how much asbestos an individual may have been exposed to or whether disease will develop. Asbestos fibers can also be detected in urine, mucus, or feces, but these tests are not reliable for determining how much asbestos may be in an individual’s lungs.