Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure

Worried that you might have been exposed to asbestos? Unsure how to tell if you’ve been affected? It’s a concern for many people, especially those whose work involved working in close proximity to asbestos – builders, plumbers, electricians – or those who have been exposed to high doses of the dust, such as the emergency crews and volunteers at Ground Zero. Even family members of those people are at higher risk, from asbestos fibres brought home on clothing, shoes or in hair.

Why is asbestos such a hazard?

Asbestos is such a dangerous material because of its fibrous nature. When damaged, cut or torn, tiny fibres break off from the main material and are easily breathed in. Although so small as to pass unnoticed down your windpipe, once in the lungs they are razor sharp and scratch the inner lining of your lungs, causing scarring, inflammation and long-term breathing difficulties (a condition known as asbestosis). Asbestos exposure has also been attributed to mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lung lining, as well as throat, larynx and more general lung cancer – though high or prolonged levels of exposure are often the main risk factor for these conditions. As of 2019, according to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), there were around 2,900 deaths every year from asbestos-related diseases, though this was a seven percent decrease on the previous six-year average.

The major difficulty with the treatment of asbestosis is that symptoms take a long time to develop – anything from 10-40 years, though it’s most commonly 20-30 years after initial exposure. This lag making it harder for medical professionals to be sure of the cause. Many symptoms initially look and feel like those of a typical cold or flu, and only prolonged issues tend to get investigated for asbestosis, unless you are aware of being in a job or situation where exposure could have occurred.

Being a natural material found in rocks, it’s logical yet rarely acknowledged that there are low levels of asbestos all around us, in the air, water and soil. These background levels are not enough to pose any medical issues – it is only when someone is exposed to a more concentrated source (such as pure asbestos) that it can cause problems.

What signs and symptoms should I look out for?

If you’re concerned for yourself or someone else and think they may be suffering from an asbestos-related medical condition, then it’s always best to get a professional opinion from your GP. However, if you’re wondering what some of the warning signs might be, so you know what to look out for, here are the main symptoms of asbestos exposure:

  1. The first signs are similar to common respiratory illnesses – a persistent dry cough, often accompanied by shortness of breath. Because asbestos fibres are so small, they aren’t big enough to tickle or irritate your throat in the same way dust does – so any cough developed immediately after possible exposure is more likely to be due to other materials, such as brick dust or fibreglass (though these can also cause health problems, which is why a dust mask is recommended for all DIY work).
  1. Chest or shoulder tightness or pain is another frequent symptom, especially when breathing in or out. The pain tends to be mild or lasts only a short amount of time.

However, if you have a sudden chest pain that spreads to your arms, back, neck or jaw; started with sweating, feeling sick or a shortness of breath; or lasts more than 15 minutes, it could be a heart attack – in this instance, call 999 immediately.

  1. Hearing a wheezing noise when you breathe in or out is a common complaint, or else hearing a dry, crackling kind of noise. Again, this can often be confused with the symptoms of a cold or flu and is more concerning when experienced alongside other symptoms over a period of several weeks.
  1. Excessive tiredness is frequently reported as a symptom, often as a side effect of reduced oxygen supply due to the scar tissue in the lungs. Tiredness and shortness of breath after doing regular activities such as household chores, walking up the stairs or to the shops, alongside any of the other symptoms, is worth referring to your GP.
  1. Those diagnosed with asbestosis or other asbestos-related diseases often experience weight loss in the weeks and months leading up. This can be mild or considerable, though this can often be caused by (or attributed to) other conditions.
  1. A latter-stage symptom is clubbed fingertips or toes, where the tips widen to give a spade-like appearance. This is generally seen where asbestos-related diseases are quite advanced, and likely other symptoms have been experienced for months or years prior to this symptom’s onset.

If you know you worked in, or were otherwise exposed to, an environment containing asbestos, and you display any of the symptoms listed above, it’s important to speak to your GP. There is no cure for asbestosis, as once the damage is done to your lungs it is irreversible, but there are treatments available to make your breathing easier and more comfortable. It is also important for your GP to check for any other conditions that may have been causes by asbestos exposure, such as pleural plaques (a thickening of the lung lining) or various cancers, which often have no symptoms of their own.

Luckily, it’s believed that deaths linked to asbestos exposure are on the decrease. Those most at risk are men in their mid-70s and older, who were involved in high-risk industries in the 1950s and 1960s before asbestos was banned. Cases among the under-70s are dropping considerably each year. If you have any concerns regarding asbestos that you know (or discover) is present in your home or place of work then do please get in touch, we can deliver almost immediate help and advice which may provide some peace of mind.

However, with asbestos still a part of many older buildings, it’s best to be aware, take precautions and know the signs to look for, so you can keep yourself and others safe.


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