Personal Injury

What is the difference between asbestosis and mesothelioma?

Exposure to asbestos can leave you at risk of developing life-altering conditions. Here, we outline the differences between asbestosis and mesothelioma, and take a look at the help and support available for those suffering.

08 January 2024

Asbestosis and mesothelioma: Understanding the difference

In its July 2023 report, the Health and Safety Executive reported that over 5,000 asbestos-related deaths occur every year in Great Britain. In 2021, more than 2,200 deaths were attributed to mesothelioma - and a similar number died from lung cancer attributed to exposure to asbestos.

Though the dangers of asbestos exposure are more commonly known today, our understanding of its risks have been developing since the early 1900s. The earliest recorded death from asbestos exposure came in 1924 in Manchester, where a woman named Nellie Kershaw died of pulmonary asbestosis. Despite this, however, asbestos continued to be used in the construction of homes and other buildings, including schools, across the UK until the use of asbestos was finally banned in 1999.

The use of asbestos persisted for so long because it was an effective insulating and heat resistant material, making it a suitable material to protect against fire and insulate pipes, boilers and heating ducts. It was also used and can still be found in other areas such as ceiling and floor tiles, wall linings, interior wall paint and fireplaces.

The health risks associated with asbestos arise when fibres become airborne, which occurs when asbestos is disturbed by cutting, drilling or otherwise breaking material containing the asbestos. The fibres are then inhaled, which can cause significant damage to the lungs, even with minimal exposure.

Asbestosis and mesothelioma are two of a number of conditions caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres. Though the conditions are linked because both are caused by asbestos exposure, and can in some cases coexist, they are very different, both in terms of their symptoms and their prognosis.

What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to high levels of asbestos fibres. As the microscopic fibres are inhaled, they cause scarring and tissue damage to the lungs (also known as fibrosis), which can make it difficult for the lungs to function effectively.

The damage caused by these fibres is accrued gradually over time, which means that prolonged exposure to high levels of asbestos fibres significantly increases the risk of developing asbestosis, and can be a factor in the severity of the condition if it does develop.

It takes a number of years after the exposure occurs before the symptoms of asbestosis are first noticed; the typical latency period is between 10 and 40 years.

As asbestosis refers to scarred lung tissue, there is no cure for the condition, though treatments are available to help control the symptoms.

What is mesothelioma?

Like asbestosis, mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. However, mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer, which occurs in the membrane that surrounds some of the body’s organs, including lungs, stomach, heart or testicles.

According to the NHS website, mesothelioma is most often diagnosed in men and women over the age of 75, and men are more commonly affected than women.

On average, it takes around 40 years for the first symptoms of mesothelioma to present, though it is possible for this to occur 10 years after the initial exposure.

There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, but there are treatments available to help control the symptoms and great strides have been made in the treatment of mesothelioma during the last decade. Today, the search for a cure continues.

What are the differences between asbestosis and mesothelioma?

Put simply, asbestosis is the scarring of the lungs (known as pulmonary fibrosis), while mesothelioma is a type of cancer.

Though both conditions are caused by the same thing - inhalation of asbestos fibres - each are caused by a different type of damage. Asbestosis is caused by tissue damage, which leads to scarring. Mesothelioma develops when the cells of an organ’s membrane are damaged, which causes them to become cancerous.

As mesothelioma is most commonly found to affect the lungs, the two conditions do share many of the same symptoms:

  • Breathlessness
  • A persistent cough
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

However, as mesothelioma can also present in the abdominal area, the heart or the testes, you should also be aware of any new pains in these areas. Other symptoms can include:

  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Feeling or being sick
  • Stomach pain or swelling
  • Swelling in face, abdomen, or arms

As the latency period between initial exposure and development of symptoms is so long, receiving a diagnosis is not always straightforward, which means it is common for mesothelioma to be identified only when the cancer has reached an advanced stage. It is therefore vitally important that you seek medical attention as soon as possible if you believe you could have mesothelioma or if you have been exposed to asbestos and develop any combination of the symptoms listed here.

How are asbestosis and mesothelioma diagnosed?

Diagnosing asbestosis and mesothelioma often involve a series of investigations, such as chest x-rays and CT scans, to confirm the extent of the damage.

When diagnosing asbestosis, doctors may also wish to perform a lung-function test to assess how well your lungs are able to hold air and transfer oxygen to the blood.

For a mesothelioma diagnosis, it is also common for doctors to perform ultrasound scans, biopsies, and an analysis of samples of pleural or peritoneal fluid. If mesothelioma is found, it will be graded on a scale of one to four, in line with the International Mesothelioma Interest Group (IMIG) staging system, signifying how advanced the condition is.

What treatments are available for asbestosis and mesothelioma?

Asbestosis is irreversible, but there are things that can help manage the condition. It is advisable to take steps such as quitting smoking, and ensuring you are up to date on vaccinations.

There is a chance that asbestosis could become more severe, though with the right management, it may never get any worse. Regular monitoring through x-rays and lung function tests will show progression, and if the disease does progress, treatment such as steroids or oxygen may be offered.

Currently, there is no known cure for mesothelioma, though there are treatments which may be available to help ease suffering, such as:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Immunotherapy

Treatments and clinical trials change often and it's therefore important that you speak to your consultant about your treatment options.

What help is available for asbestosis and mesothelioma?

Living with an asbestos-related condition can be immensely challenging, but you don’t have to face your diagnosis alone. There are a number of incredibly supportive charities and organisations specialising in supporting those impacted by asbestos-related conditions For a full list, see Support for Living with Asbestos Related Illness.

There are also several Government-backed benefits available to support those suffering from asbestosis or mesothelioma. These include lump sum payments issued under:

  • Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers Compensation) Act 1979
  • The Diffuse Mesothelioma 2018 Scheme
  • The Diffuse Mesothelioma Scheme (DMPS)

For more information about the benefits and payments you may be entitled to, read our Benefits and Payments guide.

However, as well as access to Government benefits, you may also be entitled to compensation for the pain and suffering caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.

At Slater and Gordon, we are recognised as experts in asbestos disease litigation and are proud of our award winning, multi-service offering.

Our dedicated team has decades of experience in helping people suffering from asbestos-related illness to access the help, support and compensation they are entitled to, and we’re proud to partner with a number of charities and support organisations as asbestos case experts.

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