What is the difference between mesothelioma and asbestosis?

Posted: 29th Mar 18 2:41 PM

Mesothelioma is an incurable asbestos-related cancer that affects the mesothelium, the lining of several areas within the body.

Asbestosis is a non-cancerous form of pulmonary fibrosis where the lung tissue becomes thickened and stiff over a period of time, due to permanent scarring of the alveoli.

Both of these conditions are caused by the inhalation of asbestos dust and fibres, but present themselves and affect the body in very different ways.

Asbestos in UK industry

Early symptoms of mesothelioma

All asbestos-related diseases can take anywhere between 10 and 50 years to develop, and can sometimes take longer for symptoms to show.

Mesothelioma is a very fast-acting condition, in the sense that once the first signs of symptoms present themselves, a sufferer’s health can deteriorate extremely quickly.

Early symptoms of mesothelioma can include:

  • A persistent cough, lasting for 3 weeks or more;
  • Chest pains;
  • Weight loss when not dieting.

Some people can also suffer a change in the shape of their fingers and nails, known as “finger clubbing”.

There can sometimes be a difficulty diagnosing mesothelioma through early symptoms, as they can often be put down to other lung or respiratory conditions. It is important that you tell your doctors if you have ever come into contact with and inhaled asbestos dust and fibres, as they should then be able to determine the best course of action in finding out what is wrong with you.

Early symptoms of asbestosis

Unlike mesothelioma, asbestosis is a very slow-paced respiratory disease, even for a type of pulmonary fibrosis.

While the majority of its symptoms can be similar to mesothelioma, early symptoms of asbestosis are much less noticeable, and are often believed to just be signs of old age. These can include:

  • Consistent and regular tiredness;
  • Breathlessness through minimal exertion, for example waling up a flight of stairs, or walking the dog;
  • Hypertension, a long-term medical condition in which the blood pressure in the arteries is persistently elevated.

Like mesothelioma, the symptoms of asbestosis can take between 10 and 50 years to develop. The severity of this disease can vary from person to person. Asbestosis usually progresses slowly and, in many cases, will remain stable for a long period of time.

What causes mesothelioma?

It is estimated that in the UK more than 90% of men with mesothelioma and more than 80% of women with the disease have knowingly been in contact with or were exposed to asbestos dust and fibres. We know that inhalation of asbestos is the leading cause of mesothelioma.

Dr Robin Rudd, a medical expert in mesothelioma and asbestos-related cases, has stated: “Mesothelioma can occur after a low level of asbestos exposure and there is no threshold dose of asbestos below which there is no risk.”

This means that inhaling even a single asbestos fibre could potentially cause mesothelioma.

It was believed that it was only people who worked in industrial and construction trades who could develop mesothelioma, but in the last few years, this was found not to be the case. Due to the prevalence of asbestos in building materials throughout the UK, especially schools, hospitals, and other public buildings, teachers, nurses, and even ex-pupils have started developing mesothelioma, among other asbestos-related diseases.

What causes asbestosis?

As with all asbestos-related diseases, occupational asbestos exposure is the primary cause of asbestosis. The majority of asbestosis cases in the UK and around the world are traced back to working in occupations where asbestos was used on an industrial scale, such as:

  • Shipbuilding;
  • Construction and demolition;
  • Pipefitting and boiler works;
  • Insulation (lagging).

Asbestosis typically develops after several years of prolonged and high exposure to asbestos dust and fibres, usually 5 years or more. Individuals who develop the disease recall working in vast swathes of asbestos dust for most of their working lives, and would often be working with asbestos and asbestos-containing materials themselves.

Inhaled asbestos fibres damage the lungs, causing scar tissue to develop, making it progressively more difficult to breathe.

In most cases, asbestosis develops after asbestos has accumulated in the lungs for many years. The asbestos fibres permanently damage the alveoli (air sacks which supply oxygen to the blood) in the lungs, restricting the amount of oxygen they can take in.

What can I do if I’m diagnosed with mesothelioma or asbestosis?

If you, or someone you know, is diagnosed with mesothelioma or asbestosis, there are several things you should do.

The first should be to speak to your doctor and/ or respiratory specialist and ask how the disease will affect your life. They can also give you the best information on any treatments or upcoming clinical trials which you may be able to takje part in.

Secondly, there is help and support out there for you. At the National Asbestos Helpline, we offer help and advice on how to manage your health, as well as point you in the direction of the right support networks. We can also find out if there is any financial assistance you could be eligible for, such as compensation and/ or government benefits. This could not only ease the burden that these life changing diseases bring, such as having to make alterations to your house like fitting stair lifts or walk-in showers, or having to hire help such as gardeners or cleaners.

You should also try and think about your work history and where you were exposed to asbestos. This would usually be through your past employment, and making notes of the places you were exposed on a regular basis would be essential if you wanted to try and get financial assistance.

If you or a loved one is ever diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis or another asbestos-related condition, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the National Asbestos Helpline. We’re here to help you with advice about your condition and how to cope with it, and can also advise on any benefits and/ or compensation you might be entitled to. Call us on Freephone 0808 223 0726, or email enquiries@nationalasbestos.co.uk.

Further reading

How does asbestosis develop?

Combination of drugs and radiotherapy used in search for better cancer outcomes

School staff being left in dark about presence of asbestos in their workplace – leaving them and their pupils at risk of exposure

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