Asbestos fibers that enter the lungs can become permanently lodged in the air sacs and the deepest part of the lungs. These fibers work their way into the lung tissue, causing scar tissue to form. If the scarring becomes extensive enough, it can impair breathing and put added strain on the heart. This condition is called asbestosis. Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and coughing. Asbestosis can eventually lead to permanent disability or death in some cases.
Scarring and thickening of the pleural membrane (the mesothelium) surrounding the lungs is a common result of asbestos exposure. These pleural plaques, while not generally as serious as asbestosis, can affect breathing and may put patients at greater risk of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma later in life.
Lung cancer is characterized by malignant cell growth inside the lungs. Asbestos is one of the known causes of lung cancer, along with smoking. The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure is particularly harmful, and smokers with a history of asbestos exposure have a greatly increased risk of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer can take many years or decades following asbestos exposure to develop.
Mesothelioma refers to malignant cell growth in the membrane that surrounds the lungs, heart, and abdominal cavity. Characterized by aggressive tumors, this rare cancer is the most serious and difficult to treat of the asbestos-related diseases. It is linked almost exclusively to asbestos exposure and, like lung cancer, can take as long as 30-50 years to develop.