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Differences Between Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

If you are confused about the differences between asbestosis and mesothelioma, you’re not alone. Because both conditions are caused by exposure to asbestos, and patients experience some of the same symptoms, most people find it difficult to separate the two. There are noted differences between the two conditions, with dissimilarities in latency periods, symptoms, diagnostic testing, and treatment. Knowing what these distinctions are will make it easier to understand the uniqueness of both conditions.

Asbestosis is widespread scarring of lung tissue caused by extended periods of breathing in asbestos dust. The condition develops primarily in workers exposed to asbestos in high levels in shipyards, and in construction, pipefitting, and insulation occupations. Workers in these areas are typically exposed to the mineral for 10 to 20 years before symptoms develop. However, patients usually first seek medical attention at least 15 years after exposure with signs and symptoms such as:

  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Crackling, clicking or rattling noises made by one or both lungs during inhalation (inspiratory crackles)
  • Decreased ability to exercise
  • Labored breathing (progressive dyspnea)
  • Loss of appetite with weight loss
  • Misshapen fingers or toes (clubbing)
  • Skin discoloration from inadequate oxygenation of the blood or poor circulation (cyanosis)

A number of diagnostic tests are used to make an accurate diagnosis. Doctors may utilize imaging tests such as chest X-rays and computerized tomography (CT). Per Mayo Clinic, in chest X-rays, “advanced asbestosis appears as excessive whiteness” in the lung tissue. “If the asbestosis is severe, the tissue in both lungs might be affected, giving them a honeycomb appearance.”

CT scans provide greater detail and could help detect asbestosis in its early stages. They “combine a series of X-ray views taken from many different angles to produce cross-sectional images of the bones and soft tissues inside your body.” Doctors may also use pulmonary function tests to help determine how well the lungs are functioning. These tests measure how much air the lungs can hold and the airflow in and out of the lungs.

There is no cure for asbestosis, so treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and slowing the progression of the disease. Oxygen therapy relieves shortness of breath, and draining fluid from around the lungs may make breathing easier. If symptoms are severe, the patient may be a candidate for a lung transplant. Occasionally, lung transplantation has been successful in treating asbestosis.

Mesothelioma is cancer of the pleura, called pleural mesothelioma, or cancer of the membranes of the abdomen, called peritoneal mesothelioma. Pleura are the serous membrane investing the lungs and lining the walls of the chest cavity. Like asbestosis, mesothelioma  develops in shipyard, insulation, and pipefitting workers, as well as auto mechanics, chemical workers, machinery operators, firefighters, and power plant workers. Unlike asbestosis, which results from prolonged exposure to high levels of asbestos, mesothelioma can develop after low levels of exposure. However, it typically takes 30 to 40 years for symptoms to appear and two to three months between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis.

Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain under the rib cage
  • Painful coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unusual lumps of tissue under the skin on the chest

Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:

  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Lumps of tissue in the abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss

Doctors use a number of methods and tests to diagnose mesothelioma. They use medical histories, physical exams, imaging tests such as X-rays and CT scans, echocardiograms, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, blood tests, tests of fluid and tissue samples, biopsies, ultrasound, and pulmonary function tests.

There is no cure for mesothelioma, but common cancer treatment options could improve quality of life. In some cases, certain treatment combinations could extend life. If the disease is detected early enough, these same treatment options could possibly remove all of the cancer and any tumors from the body.

The most common types of mesothelioma treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. A new type of treatment called “biologic therapy” is being used in clinical trials. Also called “biotherapy” or “immunotherapy,” biologic therapy shows promise as a treatment for late-stage mesothelioma.

If you have any of the symptoms listed, contact your doctor immediately. Because these symptoms are common to other diseases as well, only a doctor can determine if you have asbestosis, mesothelioma, or other condition.



"How Is Malignant Mesothelioma Diagnosed?" American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

"Malignant Mesothelioma Treatment." National Cancer Institute (NCI). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (NIH), n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Mayo Clinic Staff. "Asbestosis." Mayo Clinic - Diseases and Conditions. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 1998-2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Mayo Clinic Staff. "Mesothelioma." Mayo Clinic - Diseases and Conditions. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 1998-2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Papadakis, Maxine A., Stephen J. McPhee, and Michael W. Rabow, eds. "Occupational Pulmonary Diseases." Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment. 54th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015. 305-06. Print.

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